This article came to my attention today via a couple of animal professionals I really admire. One of them asked for other professionals’ opinions. I thought about responding via Twitter, but I decided this topic deserves a more extended and thoughtful response.
First, let me say that despite my background in both psychology and animal behavior, I am far from an expert in emotional support animals. I am a believer in the ability of animals to help us feel better, including by providing comfort during emotional upheaval and on-going mental crises. In fact my own professional career with animals had its modest beginnings when I sought out volunteer opportunities with animal rescues while in college because I felt sad.
All that is to establish that while I don’t know a lot about emotional support animals, I am open to the belief that in some circumstances, they may be just what the doctor—or therapist—ordered. What concern me about the article cited above, and other reports in the media, is that people who are circumventing the system to acquire online emotional assistance animal certifications may be putting their animals into situations that the animals are not equipped to handle.
I love my dog. I love to travel with him and will happily take him to pet-friendly hotels and rental properties, as well as certain public events, eating establishment, and tourist attractions. However, in my professional opinion, he would not be well-suited to accompanying me in the passenger cabin of an airplane, and I would never ask him to do so.
I don’t know that every person seeking an emotional support designation for their animal has the level of understanding of animal behavior to know what their pet can handle. I fear at times, some put their own comfort in front of the discomfort of their animal. A situation that can cause the animal distress, and may lead to physical symptoms or even aggressive behavior.
At the same time, businesses are daily put in the uncomfortable position described in the attached article of deciding between enforcing the rules and causing a scene. This is a situation in which nobody wins: not people, not businesses, and certainly not the animals. I don’t know what the solution is. I hope we can find one that protects people with genuine need for an emotional support animal, while also protecting the public interest and the needs of the animals involved.
In the meantime, I hope everyone reading this will think twice before the next time they decide to bring their pet to that event or on that plane ride, with or without an emotional support designation. Do they really need to be with you? And are they really ready to handle it?