“Much of my life I’ve been dealing with diagnosed clinical depression, but when I was a senior in high school, I also started dealing with pretty severe anxiety as well,” said UNC Charlotte Junior Grey Martineau. “When my mental health took a sharp turn in the beginning of my second semester of college, I had floated the idea of getting a dog to my parents, and by the same time next year, I had a dog living with me in my dorm.”
Emotional support animals (ESAs) help individuals who have mental illnesses by providing support and comfort. Federal law does not require ESAs, which can be any domestic animal, to go through any specific training. In addition, these animals do not necessarily need to be registered.
To qualify as an ESA, the animal must be well behaved and under the control of its handler at all times. The animal cannot pose a threat or danger to others and must be housebroken.
“In my process to get an emotional support animal, I saw a therapist for several months who confirmed that an animal would be helpful in the treatment of my mental illnesses and certified me to have the right to an ESA,” Martineau said.
“Others I know who have emotional support animals have used other medical professionals to obtain their ESA letter such as their primary care physician or psychiatrist. Registering my need for an ESA with the Office of Disability Services on campus was a little more complicated and drawn out because it had to go through that office as well as Housing and Residence Life, but it still worked out that I was able to have my dog move in with me the day that he turned one.”
Many people struggle to understand the difference between ESAs and service animals. ESA owners do not receive the same accommodations as service dog owners. A key difference between the two is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job that is directly related to the individual’s disability. Also unlike service dogs, ESAs are not required to wear vests or harnesses that identify them.
Under federal law, individuals with ESAs receive accommodations in the areas of housing and air travel. Certain rules like banning pets are waived for people who have a prescription for an ESA and they cannot be charged a pet deposit for having the ESA live with them. The Air Carrier Access Act allows ESAs and service animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of an aircraft. The airline, though, is allowed to require documentation which states that the individual has a disability and the reason for needing the animal to travel with them.
“My dog, Moose, is without a doubt the best thing that has ever happened for my mental illness,” Martineau said. “There are a lot of things that make Moose the perfect treatment for my mental illness. When I’m having a day where getting out of bed is difficult, I have to do it anyway because Moose needs to be fed and go outside, and taking care of him reminds me to take care of myself too. Mostly he reminds me to care for myself with the same effort with which I care for him.”
Having an ESA is a big responsibility as the animal is dependent on its owner’s care. However, ESAs are a great option for many people who find themselves struggling with mental illness.
“ESAs are not for everyone because this is another life that is largely dependent on you for care and love, and of course, every individual will have different needs in their treatment program. However, emotional support animals have been a great option for me and many of my friends. If you like animals and feel capable to be a caregiver for another being, ESAs are a great option to explore,” Martineau said.