Life with My Emotional Support Animal

Anxiety, Meet Gosling

My cat, Gosling—who is currently sitting next to me as I write this—has been my Emotional Support Animal for the past four years. We are currently on a plane where we are both helping each other calm down. I don’t have your typical flight-anxiety. Flying for me can induce a full-blown panic attack, and without Gosling, I feel helpless and alone with my thoughts. Maybe the plane will crash, maybe the pilot is new, maybe there’s a terrorist on board. Having Gosling with me, even times when she is as scared as I am, helps me deal with any unwanted symptoms of flight anxiety.

With my anxiety disorder, daily tasks can be more challenging for me than for others. If I get stressed out—even over little things—my heart starts pounding, I can’t catch my breath, and I feel like I’m going to pass out. While anxiety prescriptions can be helpful, they leave me feeling groggy, or even strung-out. Gosling helps me feel calm; Her comfort is the best kind of medicine, and the distraction she provides is unmatchable.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals – or ESA’s – are companion animals intended to provide assistance to a person with a mental health disorder.

Much like their service animal counterparts, these animals form a bond with their humans and help them navigate day-to-day challenges. ESA’s assist with anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and countless other conditions which affect millions of people every day. ESA’s can be dogs, cats, or many other animals.

However, ESA’s are unlike other service animals. They don’t wear vests or necessarily know commands, and may not receive any formal training. The only requirement is that they provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support to their human companions.

There is some controversy with ESA’s, including other people’s allergies, lack of training, and, unfortunately, even fraud. While these concerns are valid, the same worries apply to registered service animals. The rising popularity of ESA’s and prevalence of abuse of this privilege has not made it easy.

According to a study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, titled “Public Perceptions of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs,” emotional support animals are more likely to be perceived as helping with a legitimate need, and their access to public spaces is viewed favorably. The study also found that “despite the media’s focus on abuses and false representation of emotional support animals, most participants reported feeling the majority of people are not taking advantage of the system.”

Laws You Should Know
There are a few important laws to be familiar with if you are interested in getting an ESA. The first is the Fair Housing Act which states that it is discrimination if a landlord does not make “reasonable accommodations” for a disabled person. This means they must allow the animal and waive the pet deposit, which is the most common violation. This law also applies to dorm rooms and residence halls as per the 2013 court case U.S. v. University of Nebraska at Kearney.

The key word with the Fair Housing Act is reasonable. If it has been proven that the animal will or has caused damage to the property, it is completely within a landlord’s rights to disallow that animal. This area mainly becomes difficult when the animal is large or exotic, which is why it’s important to train an ESA in being as calm and as well-behaved as possible.

The other law is the Air Carrier Access Act which allows you to fly with your ESA. The last time I was planning to fly, I had to not only provide the letter, but my psychiatrist had to fill out a form from the airline. The hoops I had to jump through were numerous: they forgot to initial here so we can’t accept it, they didn’t date their signature so we can’t accept it.

Once I got the forms filled out properly and arrived at the airport, security was even more of a nightmare than usual. Not only did I have to carry my on-edge cat through the metal detector, but they swabbed my hands, and her fur for gunpowder. Then I had to show both the letter and the form to the flight attendants again before I could have her on my lap.

Getting an ESA
Getting an ESA is somewhat of an easy process; however, some challenges can occur along the way. To qualify for an ESA, a person must have a documented mental health condition and a letter from a psychiatrist or mental health professional. It can usually be done within a few visits, however with the state of our mental health system, accessible mental health professionals are becoming harder and harder to find. Then there’s the matter of being able to afford to see someone.

After getting a mental health professional to agree to an ESA, a letter will be written stating that the ESA is necessary and prescribed for the person’s health and well-being. This letter can then be used to allow the ESA into rental units, airplanes, and other public spaces where animals are not typically allowed. While ESA’s are completely recognized, oftentimes people run into trouble under these situations.

I know it can be confusing and complicated to get psychological help, especially due to stigmas associated with mental health challenges. Because of this, many websites have popped up advertising ESA letters. While some may be legitimate, others are not. Always be sure to find someone reputable and well-established when seeking a letter to allow your best friend to also be your most trusted ally during difficult times.

By: Laine Aswad