Is it time to ban emotional support animals? | The Tylt
Is it time to ban emotional support animals?
Emotional support animals have been at the center of some of the more ridiculous news stories this year. From a turkey to a duck in red boots to a peacock, it's become clear that the emotional support animal system that allows passengers to board planes with their pets has officially gone too far.
Aside from being totally ridiculous, it is also very dangerous. Support pets have attacked passengers on planes time and time again. And since pets don't have to undergo any kind of formal training to become an emotional support animal, it seems inevitable that things will only get worse. David Leonhardt of The New York Times argues that, while flying pets may not be the most important issues of our time, it is endemic of "mass cheating" and selfishness in our culture.
I’m not going to claim that flying pets are one of the country’s biggest problems right now... But I do find this situation to be a fascinating case study of how mass cheating can become acceptable—and how decent people can make decisions that are more selfish than they realize. It is one of the downsides of a modern culture that too often fetishizes individual preference and expression over communal well-being.
Individuals who travel with "emotional support" pets are abusing a law that was meant to protect people with actual disabilities who need service animals—which are required to undergo rigorous and expensive training. There is nothing noble about exploiting a loophole meant to help people with disabilities.
The law made sure that physically disabled people could travel with service animals. It also rightly applied to nonphysical disabilities. Some autistic children, for example, function better with a trained dog... [But] the trouble started when pet owners realized that they could game the system, because airlines did not require much proof of medical need.
The scientific basis for emotional support animals is virtually nonexistent. While the Air Carrier Access Act allows passengers to bring animals on board if they provide a letter from a mental health clinician or a doctor, the research on the effectiveness of emotional support pets is extremely weak.
As Yale psychology researcher Molly Crossman puts it: "... the research on dogs is inconclusive. The research on emotional support peacocks and hamsters doesn’t exist."
With these emotional support animals, we’re talking about what is essentially a prescription from doctors to people with clinically significant symptoms. When we talk about that, there are very specific standards of evidence for psychiatric and psychological treatment, and these have not met that standard.
A lot of people have this impression that [the evidence] is very well established and we really know that [animals] are beneficial. But what is surprising is that we actually don’t know that at all.
So if the research is inconclusive, and people are clearly taking advantage of a loophole, why should we continue to allow emotional support animals?
But defenders of emotional support animals argue there is research that suggests pets can help individuals with mental and emotional health problems. Even Crossman admits it's hard to quantify how much joy a pet brings someone. There's no evidence that emotional support animals are actually harmful to one's mental health, so if someone says they feel better when accompanied by their furry friend, who's to tell them no?
The father of modern psychology Sigmund Freud famously used his dog for psychoanalysis and found the presence of his dog consistently lowered his blood pressure. Dogs, in particular, are also skilled at reading the emotional states of humans and can react accordingly when their owner is dealing with anxiety or other emotions they may be feeling on a plane.
Doctors have been using support animals to help patients with PTSD, anxiety, and depression for years. Clearly, they are providing some benefit. According to the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, individuals saw an 82 percent reduction in symptoms of PTSD after just one week of having an emotional support animal.
Sure, some people may be abusing the emotional support animal system, but those instances are few and far between. Thousands of support pets travel on planes every year, with few bad incidents. Is it really fair to punish and discount all support animals for the bad behavior of a few?
Alexis Dent of Greatist writes about her own emotional support dog Giant and how he has helped her deal with her anxiety disorder. Dent believes emotional support animals aren't given the same respect as service animals because mental health is still not taken as seriously as physical disabilities in this country.
When I see people being critical about the many Americans who benefit from emotional support animals, it's upsetting... It's easy for people to acknowledge the validity of a service animal for someone with a physical disability like blindness. But for those of us who are functionally disabled in a way that’s less visibly apparent, the negative rhetoric around the rising number of emotional support animals reminds us that our culture refuses to treat neurological disorders the same as we do physical disorders like blindness or deafness.