Monica Chen discusses her AVMA extern experience

Published on August 10, 2016
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The AVMA recently developed a new policy regarding emotional support animals (ESAs). This is an interesting and important topic not only because of the countless fraudulent cases appearing in the news, but also because, as an AVMA extern, I got to research it and help set the groundwork for future AVMA projects regarding ESAs.

A simple search of “emotional support animals” will turn up countless links to either certify one’s pet as an ESA or to several different news articles stating how much trouble fake ESAs are causing businesses, airlines, and the public. While most people aren’t maliciously certifying their pet as an ESA, there are some serious repercussions, most of which are at the expense of people with disabilities. My job was to look up as much as I could about service animals and ESAs and, with the guidance of the Animal Welfare Division, determine what steps could be taken to best remedy this situation.

One of my first tasks was to differentiate between a service animal and an ESA and determine under what circumstances each are legally protected. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as any dog (miniature horses have been added as a specific provision) that assists a person with a mental or physical disability by performing specific disability-related tasks. Service animals are allowed to go into any public space with that person, without any pet-related fees, as long as the dog doesn’t disrupt the nature of business and is housebroken. An ESA is any type of animal that assists mental or emotional disorders through companionship. ESAs are allowed to accompany their owner under the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act without any pet-related fees.

At first glance, the distinction seems easy. ESAs are only allowed in public housing and airplanes; service animals are allowed everywhere the public is allowed. ESAs can be any animal; service animals are strictly dogs. However, the more I looked into it, I realized it’s actually harder to regulate and differentiate because different states have different laws defining what a service animal is and what tasks they can and cannot perform under the state definition which may or may not differ from the ADA definition. It’s also difficult because some service dogs, such as seizure alert dogs, don’t have readily apparent tasks. The question then becomes how can I determine a service animal from an ESA from a pet without infringing on the rights of people with disabilities and, based off this determination, do I need to allow them in or is it more up to my own discretion?

Because most people and businesses want to treat everyone with respect, they trust that people with an animal genuinely need that animal for a disability or for emotional support. Unfortunately, sometimes the animals are pets that aren’t necessarily trained to handle public situations and new stimuli, resulting in a negative experience for the business, other people in the vicinity, and the animal. Consequently, some businesses are hesitant to let any animal enter, even if it’s a service animal, and some states are trying to implement laws making it more difficult to obtain a service or emotional support animal or require some type of certification process (which, for service animals, is contrary to the ADA). While this is well intentioned, the results could negatively impact the people that actually require service animals and ESAs, putting the burden of proof on them.

Before going to Schaumburg, I had heard of fraudulent ESAs and was mildly aware of the problem, but had no clue how complicated the problem actually was or the impact these fraudulent cases were making. It was exciting to work on such a hot issue and know that the work I was doing could eventually impacts thousands. I am so happy and fortunate that I got to be an AVMA extern this summer and would highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about their profession and make a lasting impact.