Health + Tech /11 Nov 2019
11.11.19

Should People Be Able to Take Their Therapy Pets Everywhere?

Do you snicker when you see a well-dressed woman walk into the mall with a puppy in her purse? These days, you may want to avoid jumping to conclusions. Maybe she’s trying to keep up with the Kardashians — or perhaps she needs a therapy pet.

Different jurisdictions have various laws concerning emotional support animals. Those who aren’t very involved in the mental health community might question how a Chi-weenie or a Siamese can provide a therapeutic benefit. However, these animals go beyond mere companions — they offer substantial healing.

Why Do People Need — and Acquire — Therapy Pets?

The use of therapy animals continues to grow, along with the number of people with anxiety and depression. As a result, many jurisdictions enacted legislation allowing their use. Recently, landlords and business owners began expressing concerns that people abuse this system by visiting online therapists and bringing in animals for nontherapeutic purposes.

Yes, some people flout the rules — but that’s a reason to punish individual violators, not penalize those in need. Therapy pets offer a legitimate benefit to people with mental health disorders in the same way seeing-eye dogs assist the blind. Someone with severe social anxiety disorder, for example, might find their disease so crippling, they can’t hold down steady employment. Interactions that many people can brush off might leave them running out the door in tears. However, having a therapy pet gives them the strength to cope.

Interactions with therapy animals cause changes in neurotransmitter function, similar to medications. When a patient speaks to or brushes their pet, this interaction stimulates pleasure receptors in the brain, releasing powerful mood-enhancing chemicals. Unlike drugs, animals don’t cause adverse effects like weight gain or insomnia!

Most people would probably never tell someone, “I don’t believe in antidepressants, so I won’t let you use them on my property, even if they’re legally prescribed.” Why do the same to someone who needs a therapy pet? Assuming the animal is well-behaved, it shouldn’t matter anymore than what medications line the individual’s medicine cabinet.

Some property and business owners cite the convenience of others as reasons for refusing therapy animals. Airline passengers may indeed raise their eyebrows if they found themselves seated next to a pot-bellied pig or a duck. Most, however, would probably prefer sharing a row with a well-mannered Fido than an out-of-control toddler.

The minor inconveniences these pets may pose pale in comparison to need. Yes, one might need to work harder to maneuver a grocery cart around an individual with a Labrador on a leash. They’d need to exercise as much care in working their way around someone on crutches, though — and it’s highly unlikely anyone would kick the person on crutches out of the store and tell them not to return until their cast came off.

43.8 million American adults experienced a mental illness in the past year. Currently, only 200,000 animals grace the National Emotional Support Animal registry. If anything, people with mental disorders need greater access to this therapeutic tool, not less.

Legal Considerations and Therapy Animals

What does one need to do if they think they’d benefit from an emotional support animal? Where can — and where can’t — people take their therapy pets? Various jurisdictions have adopted slightly different rules, but ESA owners do have rights.

To obtain a therapy pet or have one certified, the applicant must have a severe mental health disorder that such treatment would help. Contrary to critical belief, people can’t obtain certification through the Internet — a licensed mental health practitioner must write a letter. They will verify the qualifying condition.

Those with anxiety about air travel are in luck because flying with a therapy pet is legal. Airlines also can’t limit passengers to one support animal per person, but they can deny animals based on weight or size. Your pair of Pomeranians will pass muster…your horse probably won’t.

Landlords also can’t charge additional fees or evict tenants for having an emotional support animal. Therapy pets are exempt from breed restrictions, regardless of local ordinances or landowner preference. However, landlords can forbid animals that pose a threat to the health or property of others.

Developing Empathy Toward Others

Perhaps most importantly, service animals can remind us — visibly — to exercise empathy toward others. Think about the last time someone irritated you. Maybe they stood in front of the soup display at the grocery, taking their time deciding, when you only wanted to grab a can of potato soup and go. You looked down, and maybe their leashed collie with a therapy vest was just the thing you needed in order to realize there might be more behind this stranger’s indecisiveness than meets your eye. Seeing emotional support animals reminds us to choose kindness, because we never really know what someone is going through.

Some People Need Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals benefit those with mental health disorders, and they can also act as much-needed reminders to others to behave with greater empathy and sensitivity. Therapy pets offer unconditional love, the best healer of all! If anything, our society probably needs more of it — not less.

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