I Am a Therapist and I Have An Emotional Support Animal
Anyone who has ever even casually glanced in my direction knows that I’m obsessed with my dog Lucy.
What many people don’t know, however, is that Lucy is my Emotional Support Animal.
What is an Emotional Support Animal? Per the American Kennel Club website, an Emotional Support Animal (or ESA) is a pet whose presence is necessary, it is determined by a licensed mental health practitioner, for the mental health of a patient. Wikipedia states, “Any animal that provides support, well-being, comfort, or aid, to an individual through companionship, non-judgmental positive regard, and affection may be regarded as an emotional support animal.”
That sounds like most pets, right? The key difference here is that in order for a pet to be legally accepted as an ESA, the pet guardian must have a letter from a mental health professional containing certain criteria and essentially “prescribing” the pet for them.
Emotional Support Animals are a controversial topic in my field, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Most of us have heard about the passenger who tried to bring her Emotional Support Peacock on board a flight in January of 2018; you sort of just have to know that story to conclude things in this arena have gone a bit nutty.
Additionally, there is no shortage of people out there trying to get an ESA letter simply to dodge airline fees or evade landlord restrictions. Do a quick Google search and you will find endless links to services that offer to sell you an ESA letter or “registration,” or tips on “how to ask doctor for emotional support animal.”
I have had more than one person contact me asking to meet only once and for the sole purpose of having me write them an ESA letter. Once, a client whom I had been seeing for several months (and who, for the record, never even as much as looked at Lucy during our sessions) asked me to write an ESA letter so that their family dog who lived out of state could travel on board with them back to Los Angeles for free. I declined to write that letter.
I decline to write all letters when it is clear the client would only like the letter to benefit financially. I do not find this to be a hypocritical practice, but rather, something that helps uphold the standards and ethics of my profession. A client doesn’t need to be as batty about or devoted to my animals in order for me to consider writing them a letter, but I need to be convinced they aren’t just trying to cheat a system.
And just how am I batty and devoted?
I have always had a nearly pathological way of bonding to the dogs amongst whom I have been lucky enough to live. I remember singing Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” into a stereo microphone to our family dog Harry when I was 9-years-old (“I am the man who will fight for your honor…”). When I went away to summer camp for the first time, Harry was the recipient of at least two letters over the course of my two-week stay. In fifth grade, after Harry passed, I began wearing his dog tags to school nearly every day. Currently, I wear the ashes of my parents’ dog Lola, a creature with whom I had an exceptional relationship (and who was the ring bearer in my wedding) in a custom-made pendant around my neck.
Lucy is no exception. Having her near me is an incredibly secure, safe, and grounding feeling. No matter what else is happening in the world or in my life, being her guardian and tending to her simple needs has a way of distilling things down to the present moment that actually resembles a fundamental mindfulness practice. When I need to put the stress and clutter of the day aside in order to walk or feed her, I am able to bring a relaxed focus to caring for this creature who represents for me all the goodness in the world. Connecting to that spiritual goodness through caring for her, looking at her, smelling her, or otherwise doing for her re-roots me in a way that is accessible, comes naturally, and is necessary to my mental health. Knowing that she is okay provides a backdrop that helps create my own “okayness” in a way I imagine it would for parents of human children.
There is a Japanese study published in 2015 which found that when eye contact between a dog and its guardian is established and held, the “love hormone” oxytocin is triggered in both human and animal. I can tell you that I feel a surge of oxytocin almost every time I look at Lucy, whether she is looking back at me or not.
So what does it ultimately and legally mean for me that I have a letter from my doctor stating Lucy is my Emotional Support Animal? Not a whole lot. We own our home so I don’t need the letter to give to a landlord, she has been allowed in all of my office buildings without issue, and regardless of ESA status animals are still not allowed indoors at restaurants and many other public places.
The one advantage I can think of is that when Lucy flies with me for the first time next month, she will not have to ride in cargo. Due to her size, she would not fit into a carrier under a seat, so having my ESA letter means she gets to ride with me in the cabin. Contrary to what some of you may be thinking, however, I did not use her status as my ESA to get her to ride for free; instead, so she could have the seat next to me, I bought her her very own ticket! See? Batty and devoted 😁