Service, emotional support, and therapy animals provide therapeutic interventions and assist individuals with disabilities, but the growing number of animals being falsely identified as assistance animals has caused increased scrutiny of their use. Part of the difficulty in detecting abuse of these designations, and the privileges that go with them, is that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs and emotional support animals do not require specific certification, so there is no simple method to detect fraud.
“A market has emerged for falsely certifying pets as an assistant animal,” according to an AVMA@Work blog post written by AVMA student extern Monica Chen, a third-year student at the University of California-Davis. “The problem is influencing state lawmakers to come up with legislation that attempts to fix the influx of fakes.”
To be proactive on the matter, the AVMA Steering Committee on Human-Animal Interactions has proposed a policy to serve as a foundation for further educational and lobbying efforts to promote appropriate use of assistance and therapy animals and discourage misunderstandings or fraud, according to a statement by the steering committee to the AVMA Board of Directors.
The steering committee has been researching the role of service, emotional support, and therapy animals for at least two years. It has already created three policies: “Emotional Support Animals,” which was approved by the Board this past August, as well as “Animal Assisted Interventions: Definitions” and “Animal Assisted Interventions: Guidelines,” which were approved in April 2015 by the Board.
Assistance animals and veterinarians
During its 2017 regular annual session, July 20-21 in Indianapolis, the AVMA House of Delegates will consider a resolution from the Board to approve the proposed AVMA policy “The Veterinarian’s Role in Supporting Appropriate Selection and Use of Service, Assistance and Therapy Animals.” The steering committee created the policy, and the Board voted April 7 to refer the resolution to the House with a recommendation for approval. The proposed policy reads as follows:
The Veterinarian’s Role in Supporting Appropriate Selection and Use of Service, Assistance and Therapy Animals
Service, assistance and therapy animals provide valuable help, support, and comfort for people. Once it has been determined that use of a service, assistance, or therapy animal is appropriate, veterinarians have the opportunity to assist their clients in selecting the right animal for the right task, see that the animal receives appropriate training for its intended role, and ensure that the health and welfare of that animal is protected.
The AVMA encourages veterinarians to be familiar with the legal status and protections accorded to service, assistance, and therapy animals and their owners, and should discourage inaccurate or misleading descriptions of these animals’ roles (e.g., “emotional support animals” status should be supported by a statement of need from a licensed mental health professional). Veterinarians should actively seek opportunities to work collaboratively with their human health and other human service-provider colleagues in developing and supporting guidance for the appropriate use of animals for therapeutic purposes and to assist people with disabilities.
To go with the proposed policy, the steering committee wrote a draft white paper with the help of Monica Chen. Titled “Assistance Animals: Rights of Access and the Problem of Fraud,” the white paper touches on the following:
Legal definitions of the various types of assistance animals and a summary of legal rights of access for each, including by state.
A summary of assistance animal fraud as well as current attempts at reducing fraud.
Strategies that might be used to simultaneously promote the appropriate use of assistance animals and discourage fraudulent activities.
Furthermore, there needs to be some system in place that deters people from wanting to falsely certify their pet as an (emotional support animal) or service animal and deters companies from distributing these false certificates. Eighteen states currently have laws in place to punish people who knowingly misrepresent their pet as a service animal. Reputable authorities, including the AVMA, should advise private companies such as search engines to take action against fraudulent sites.”
Draft white paper, “Assistance Animals: Rights of Access and the Problem of Fraud”
According to the white paper: “Rather than attempting to fix the situation with more laws that potentially contradict the ADA, the current laws should be revised or amended to be more uniform which could prevent this situation from occurring. Where this is not possible additional laws should be as consistent as possible with Federal law. If state action is inevitable a model bill might be prepared to minimize these problems and seek to maintain similar standards between states.
“Furthermore, there needs to be some system in place that deters people from wanting to falsely certify their pet as an (emotional support animal) or service animal and deters companies from distributing these false certificates. Eighteen states currently have laws in place to punish people who knowingly misrepresent their pet as a service animal. Reputable authorities, including the AVMA, should advise private companies such as search engines to take action against fraudulent sites.”
The steering committee is helping develop educational materials and exploring other collaborative activities that may assist members, policymakers, businesses, and others in supporting the appropriate use of these animals. The Board approved the release of the white paper as information to the public and allied organizations—available here.
The House of Delegates this July will consider another policy proposal, this one offering guidance to veterinarians concerning the use of stem cells and other regenerative therapies. The Board voted to refer the proposal to the HOD with a recommendation that delegates approve the policy.
The AVMA Council on Biologic and Therapeutic Agents wrote “Therapeutic Use of Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine” with input from the Clinical Practitioners Advisory Committee because, as the council explained in the recommendation background, COBTA “is keenly aware” of the need for an AVMA policy on the therapeutic use of stem cells and other regenerative medicine.
“While regenerative medicine holds promise of improvements in the treatment of a variety of diseases, many of which lack adequately effective treatments, questions remain,” COBTA stated. “Thus it is imperative that the AVMA advocate for continued scientific development of these modalities while at the same time encouraging its members to employ caution with respect to their use.”
The proposed policy provides needed guidance to veterinarians and can be used to advocate on behalf of the AVMA’s positions on the issue to policymakers and other stakeholders, the council explained.
Proposals going to the House of Delegates are available here
Members of the AVMA can find contact information for delegates here
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