Have you received a telephone call of the following nature? “Can you certify my pet to be an emotional support animal?”
If you are a professional counselor, then the likelihood of you receiving such a request is on the rise. This is because word is spreading that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recognizes the benefits of emotional support animals and provides regulations allowing them to live with an owner in designated nonpet housing (with a few exceptions) without requiring a pet deposit fee.
Exercising this right does not require that an animal be certified. What it does require is documentation that an individual has a legitimate need for an emotional support animal. The responsibility of providing this documentation lies with professional counselors and other mental health or health providers. In 2008, HUD stipulated that “persons who are seeking a reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal may be required to provide documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional that the animal provides support that alleviates at least one of the identified symptoms or effects of the existing disability.”
Documentation and other considerations
A counselor who chooses to provide such documentation must do so in letter format on the counselor’s letterhead. The documentation should state that:
1) The named individual is under the counselor’s care
2) The individual has an emotional or psychiatric disability
3) The counselor recommends the individual have an emotional support animal to assist with the disability
The letter is provided directly to the individual who wants to have an emotional support animal live in the home. The individual can then choose with whom to share the letter.
In the documentation, the counselor does not label, define or describe the particular disability of the client. Rather, the counselor must state in general terms that the client has an emotional or psychiatric disability and that an emotional support animal can alleviate one or more of the symptoms or effects of the disability. Individuals need only provide proper documentation to a landlord to have a pet live with them as an emotional support animal in housing typically designated as excluding pets. The judicial system has interpreted this right to fair housing to additionally extend to individuals who wish to have emotional support animals live with them in college or university housing facilities, such as residence halls, dormitories or university-owned apartments.
The responsibility of providing documentation that would allow individuals to have an emotional support animal live with them should not be taken lightly. Based on the accompanying symptoms of a client’s emotional or psychiatric disability, a professional must determine whether living and engaging with an emotional support animal in the home might provide the client with some relief from the disability. To make this determination, it may be useful to have some understanding of how an animal may alleviate symptoms or effects of an emotional disability. Fortunately, there is research that provides guidance in this area.
In my 2012 book, Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, I reviewed several research studies on the psychophysiological and psychosocial benefits of positive social interaction with a pet, such as holding or stroking an animal. These benefits include calming and relaxing, lowering anxiety, alleviating loneliness, enhancing social engagement and interaction, normalizing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing pain, reducing stress, reducing depression and increasing pleasure. Based on the results of these studies, it is plausible that living with an emotional support animal may alleviate symptoms associated with a number of emotional and psychiatric disabilities. HUD states, “Emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”
Another factor to consider in recommending that a client have an emotional support animal is whether the client has the ability and desire to properly care for an animal. Although human-animal interaction is known to assist people with developmental, emotional, social and behavioral disorders, it is important to assess whether any impairment is so severe that an animal would be neglected or harmed.
Dogs are the most common species to serve in the role of emotional support animals, but Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and HUD’s Fair Housing Act (FHAct) do not designate species restrictions for this role: “While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.”
Emotional support animals vs. service animals
HUD legislation uses the broad term “assistance animals,” which is inclusive of both service animals and emotional support animals, when addressing the right to fair housing for individuals with these animals. In contrast, the fair housing rights and rights of access to other facilities included in the Americans with Disabilities Act addresses service animals only. To be clear, an emotional support animal is not the same as a service animal or a psychiatric service animal. Thus, emotional support animals do not have the same federal rights of access to facilities as do service animals. HUD provides the only current federal legislation that covers rights regarding emotional support animals, and this legislation is specific to allowing individuals to have animals live with them as emotional support in designated nonpet housing without financial penalty.
In 2013, HUD clarified that an emotional support animal is not merely a pet: “An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.” However, HUD also stipulated that emotional support animals “do not need training to ameliorate the effects of a person’s mental and emotional disabilities.” Furthermore, “For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the FHAct nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified.”
There are no qualification requirements for determining whether a specific pet is appropriate to serve as an emotional support animal. So, by default, an emotional support animal is basically a person’s pet that lives with that person and provides emotional support. HUD does stipulate that housing providers are not required to provide accommodations if an animal is destructive, poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others or interferes with the ability of a facility to perform its intended purpose. So, in practice, most people with proper documentation can have a pet live with them and serve in the role of emotional support animal as long as the animal is not destructive, disruptive or dangerous.
Because federal law does not require emotional support animals to be trained or certified, the potential exists for some of these animals to be unpredictable and cause harm. Until there is greater oversight regarding emotional support animals, I recommend that counselors avoid a chain of liability and not name a specific pet to serve as an emotional support animal. When providing documentation, refer only to the benefit of the individual having an emotional support animal, but do not name a specific animal. The decision concerning the specific pet to be designated as an emotional support animal should be made by the individual owner of the pet. It is not the responsibility of the counselor or other mental health provider to sanction the appropriateness of a particular pet to serve as an emotional support animal. That is not to say that counselors should avoid assisting individuals in the decision-making process regarding emotional support animals.
For instance, counselors can recommend that clients have their pets evaluated by a qualified evaluator before designating the pets to serve as emotional support animals. A standardized evaluation can often determine if an animal possesses the appropriate stamina and temperament to serve in this role.
Evaluation is important for health and safety reasons. Some animals may find the role of emotional support animal to be too stressful, and the emotional and physical health of the pet will be damaged. We must not overlook the welfare of the animals when considering whether they might provide emotional support for individuals with emotional and psychiatric disabilities. In addition, some pets can respond to stress with overprotective tendencies and aggression, putting members of the public at risk.
Many individuals desire to have their emotional support animals accompany them to pet-restricted facilities outside the home. Many businesses and institutions today are wrestling with how to make this happen while still maintaining the safety of those who may come in contact with these animals. It is my opinion, as a very experienced handler and animal team evaluator, that if individuals were to have their pets’ temperament evaluated by a qualified evaluator, both initially and periodically (say every two years), and provide current documentation that the animal had passed a standardized temperament evaluation, then they might be granted permission by a business or institution on a case-by-case basis to have their emotional support animal accompany them to places where pets are typically not allowed.
Animal temperament evaluations
Animal temperament evaluations assess the animal’s social attitude and behavior toward both people and a neutral test dog. In addition, the evaluation assesses the animal’s ability to walk politely on a leash, interact with a small crowd of people and respond to a variety of basic obedience commands by its handler. Failing a temperament evaluation would not interfere with the right of an individual to have the pet live in the home in the role of emotional support animal. Federal law protects this right. Qualified animal temperament evaluators can be found through national organizations such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program and the national Pet Partners program.
The AKC website (akc.org/dog-owners/training/canine-good-citizen/) provides information about the CGC evaluation, which is best suited for the simple purpose of determining if a pet is well-behaved enough to be around the general public. However, it is designed solely to evaluate the temperament of dogs, not other species. The CGC evaluation is relatively inexpensive, takes about 30 minutes to complete and requires the handler to take the dog through a series of basic obedience commands. Local CGC evaluators can be found at many large pet stores that offer dog training for handlers or at community obedience training clubs. The Pet Partners organization offers evaluations for a number of different domestic animal species, but the investment in cost and effort is higher. This is because the intended purpose is to register Pet Partners teams that can provide services to the public as handler and therapy animal (note that a therapy animal is not the same as an emotional support animal). The Pet Partners registration requires a rigorous handler-team evaluation — for temperament, skills and aptitude — and requires the handler to complete a training that is available online or through an eight-hour, in-person workshop. The training includes learning about risk management and infection control procedures that are valuable to follow when a pet is engaging with the public. The Pet Partners website (petpartners.org) provides information on training and finding a local evaluator.
The animal temperament evaluation procedure may resolve a prominent ethical dilemma. If an emotional support animal can alleviate or assist with a person’s emotional or psychiatric disability at home, why shouldn’t the animal be allowed to serve this purpose outside of the home as well, such as in the classroom or a work environment? At the same time, because no oversight exists regarding behavioral requirements for emotional support animals, how do businesses and institutions protect the public from danger posed by a potentially unruly animal? Because there is no federal regulation that requires facilities other than housing to allow the presence of emotional support animals, then businesses and institutions can establish their own policies around this issue.
Requiring a standardized animal temperament evaluation may be a reasonable solution to this ethical quandary. The business or institution could provide a letter of access, for a designated period of time, to an individual accompanied by an emotional support animal if that person provides the institution with:
1) Official documentation from a professional counselor, or other mental health or health provider, designating the need for an emotional support animal (this could be the same documentation used for federal housing rights)
2) Proof that the animal passed a recently administered standardized temperament evaluation from a reputable source such as AKC or Pet Partners (the evaluation should have been completed within the past two years because appropriate animal temperament can deteriorate over time)
Perhaps the greatest source of confusion today is around the concept of emotional support animals. The general public may not be aware that emotional support animals are not the same as psychiatric service animals and therefore do not have all of the same federal rights to access facilities. Many people are unaware that current federal law does not require emotional support animals to be trained or evaluated. Thus, some emotional support animals with inappropriate temperament may pose a risk to the general public. Generally, the public does not realize that most emotional support animals are essentially a person’s pet serving in the role of emotional support.
I am an advocate for the idea of emotional support animals, but I firmly believe there should be greater oversight. This would include evaluation of the appropriateness of a pet to serve as an emotional support, taking into consideration both the prospective health and welfare of the animal and the health and welfare of the public, particularly if the animal is to accompany the individual to facilities outside the home. Current federal law clearly states that an emotional support animal does not have to be trained or certified to be allowed to live with a person, implying that the animal does not have to be evaluated either. But federal law does not make stipulations about access to facilities other than the home for emotional support animals. Thus, businesses and institutions are free to make policies that allow individuals to be accompanied by their emotional support animals, while also providing for the safety of the public.
Counselors can more effectively advocate for their clients if they understand federal regulations pertaining to emotional support animals. Additionally, this information is beneficial for protecting the general public from those who might misrepresent the role of their animal or the right for the animal to accompany them into pet-restricted areas. Unfortunately, profit opportunists exist who encourage such misrepresentation by selling (to anyone who is willing to pay) an official-looking — yet completely unofficial — vest for a pet to wear and a worthless “certification” document that may ultimately confuse the public about the legitimate role of the animal and the rights of the individual the animal is accompanying.
Federal advocacy for those with emotional or psychiatric disabilities, through recognition of the right to have an emotional support animal in the home, is a positive development in our society. Moreover, businesses and institutions that recognize the potential benefits of allowing an emotional support animal to accompany a person with a disability outside of the home reflects enhanced sensitivity to human welfare.
Animals are an excellent source of nurturance and companionship. Creating additional yet responsible opportunities for human-animal interaction enhances people’s lives. Movement toward greater integration of well-behaved animals into our daily lives at home, school and work is a reflection of enlightened social evolution.
Related reading: See Cynthia Chandler’s second Counseling Today article on this topic, “Is there an epidemic of emotional support animals?”
Cynthia Chandler is a professor of counseling and director of the Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy at the University of North Texas. She is author of the book Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling (2012). Contact her at email@example.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.