Recently, ESAD Founder and CEO Chaz Stevens sat down with a Healthline reporter to chat about emotional support animals.
Q: Who is an ideal candidate for an ESA, and why?
For housing, an emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act.
An emotional support animal is not a pet. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The person seeking the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship).
To qualify for a housing ESA letter, an individual:
- Must have a “disability and disability-related need for an assistance animal.”
- HUD defines a disability as a “major impact on a life activity,” commonly referred to as a functional limitation.
- The four most common disabilities are sleep, concentration, focus, and social interaction.
- Individual’s animal must help ameliorate the disability.
A passenger/client traveling with an ESA must be currently under the care of a licensed mental health care or medical provider and:
- Have a mental health-related disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V).
- Need the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and activity at their destination.
As far as “ideal,” our clients have run the gamut – horrific sexual abuse, wounded warriors, victims of violent crime to those seriously struggling with anxiety, stress, and depression.
We do our best to help those in need, and wave off those in want.
Q: Do there need to be better standards in place for ESAs? Why or why not?
Yes, without a doubt.
This business is full of ethically-flexible clients, clinicians, and vendors.
To enter the online ESA business, all it takes is a PO box, a website, and a few dollars for Google pay-per-click advertising. There’s little consideration paid to the client’s needs or well-being and the public’s interest.
Sites are registered offshore, there’s an online business here in South Florida run by a convicted sex offender. Duplicity and false advertising runs rampant.
A deep dive for ownership of ESA sites reveals sparse details. Now, imagine giving your most secret of secrets — your protected health information — to someone you don’t know. Just how robust is the site’s security? How much effort is put into HIPAA compliance? Imagine those secrets of yours appearing on the dark web.
As for ESAD, my name is proudly proclaimed on our pages. Heck, I even have a Wiki page for my activism work.
Contrarily, here’s a link to some folks we’d not suggest doing business with — pay particular attention to www.waggy.pet.
Q: How can people be sure they are safe around another person’s ESA?
That is also a legitimate concern.
Currently, federal guidelines do not require any training for an ESA or service animal. Recent changes from the airline industry requires the passenger to acknowledge the ESA will be under their control at all times.
Queue the people getting their face chewed off and the recent flight attendant taking five stitches home.
Going to the airport is stressful enough for individuals. Imagine the stress put on the animal; taken from its home and thrust into the corridors of JFK. Why should we act surprised when the animal acts out?
Assessing a dog’s temperament and behavior is outside the scope and training of my clinical team. Our therapists are highly educated (master’s level or better) and experts at human behavior, but not an animal’s. While we have an additional lengthy assessment for a “banned breed animal,” we acknowledge the limitations of our team’s ability to accurately assess an animal’s behavior.
Q: Have we demonstrated positive effects of ESAs for some patients?
Without a doubt.
There are those in the mental health care business who frown upon ESA letters, therapists with different care standards, and all points in between. At ESAD, I rely upon my clinicians — over 1,100 of them now. I tell them that we must do this honorably, ethically, and always keep the client’s needs first.
As the co-founder of my company told me years ago, “If I can give someone a dog versus a pill, count me in for the doggy.”
People come to us who are genuinely broken inside, with stories out of the pages of a Wes Craven movie. When I first started this company, coming from an IT background, I was shocked at the stories that came across our transom. And I knew early on who we served and the importance of our mission.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative effect of an emotional support animal. Granted, I am not a therapist, but it’s pretty apparent to see the change from tears to smiles. That’s really cool. Really cool. Makes you feel good inside to help another.
It’s one of the main reasons I’m happy to be involved with this venture.
Q: What are the disadvantages to using a registered ESA? Could someone be labeled with a disability and therefore miss out on a job opportunity for example…if the company doesn’t want the animal in a workplace?
Not to wordsmith you here but let me tune up your inquiry.
There’s no such thing as “registration.” When you see sites offering service dog or ESA registration, that’s a dead giveaway they’re selling you worthless junk. There’s no government mandate for registration, no database sitting in an agency office, nothing of the sort.
ESAs have two rights prescribed under Federal law. Per the Fair Housing Act, ESAs are allowed into no-pets-allowed housing (waiving pet rules like deposits, fees, breed, size, and weight). The Air Carrier Access Act allows a passenger/client to bring the animal on board in the main cabin.
An ESA has zero legal access to the public space – can’t bring the animal to Whole Foods, the bank, school classes, etc.
In California and only California, an ESA is allowed into the workplace.
As to your question about denying someone’s civil rights, I’m not a lawyer and will always recommend to clients to seek an attorney’s counsel. If a client asked me if our letters allowed them to bring their animal to work, assuming they’re not located in California, I’d tell them no and explain an ESA’s limited rights granted under the law.
To those visitors wanting an ESA letter to help blur the distinction between a service animal and an ESA, I’d tell them your rescue animal, saved from the pits of hell, does not magically transform into a “service animal” merely because you spent $100 buying various knick-knacks from the Internet.
According to one popular website, “By registering your service animal or emotional support animal in our registry and having proper credentials, 99% of businesses won’t even bother asking you about your service animal.”
Certification does not mean an individual dog is a service dog. Neither does registration or an official-looking ID. Many online businesses are selling fake certification, registration, and IDs. The disability is never verified.
Bogus. Totally bogus.
Sure, you’re liable to “game the system,” you’ll “get one over” on the restaurant owner, and the what-not. However, you’re making it harder for folks with a legitimate need for an assistance animal.
We spend very considerable time, treasure, and energy operating this business both ethically and professionally. Those who take shortcuts get under my skin.
Q: Is there any coverage for ESAs and their care?
I presume you mean insurance coverage? As we’re not on any insurance panels, I do not have any intel to provide.
Q: Do you think people needlessly label themselves as needing an ESA?
Without a doubt.
Saving a few bucks, sense of entitlement, my friend did it, so why not me are a few of the reasons we’ve discovered along our journey. Also, they want a quick easy way of getting a “service animal” they can take with them out in public.
We tell them no, we can’t help.
As mentioned before, this industry is too-full of ethically flexible vendors, clients, and clinicians.
We do our best to weed them out. Our assessments are lengthy (over 150 questions), we empower our therapists to say no – they’re paid for their time, not paid to write letters. Clinicians have spent a lot of time and money getting their licensure, so we do our best to protect it.
Q: Are mental health professionals too quick to suggest ESAs?
Also, without a doubt.
A quick review of various websites reveals sites that will issue you a letter in 10 minutes based upon 15 multiple choice answers — they’re likely using what’s known as a DSM-5 Cross Cut exam. It’s a standardized test — but it wasn’t developed (I’m told) for how it’s being used at those scurrilous sites.
You’ll never speak with the clinician, never be offered continued care, never be evaluated for self-harm, never told about the pros/cons of e-therapy.
Such is the case of Carla Black (a California licensed therapist) recently dinged for writing ethically challenged letters to out-of-state clients.
Here’s $59 and thanks for the letter.
Q: From an animal welfare standpoint how can we ensure animals are well cared for?
I’m a doggy lover. Huge. I have a pair of rescue dogs in my office as I sit here. Animal safety is important to me.
In our extensive team training, we empower our clinicians to make a judgment call about the animal’s safety and well-being. Again, I am not a therapist, but it would seem to me some people have issues caring for themselves, and perhaps it’s not in their or an animal’s best interest to live together.
But those sorts of decisions are best left to our clinicians.
It’s not a perfect solution, no doubt. However, again, there are certain limitations our team faces (lack of formal specialized animal training), so we try to keep all that in mind.