Yes, People Really Do Need Emotional Support Animals

Yes, People Really Do Need Emotional Support Animals

Yes, People Really Do Need Emotional Support Animals
July, 2018
In our Facebook post about Delta’s discriminatory new policy around service dogs (SDs) and emotional support animals (ESAs) we saw a lot of misinformation and even ableism from our Facebook fans with regard to ESAs. Emotional support animals are not service dogs, but they do help people with disabilities. They aren’t “crutches” or things people use when they should just “deal with it.” Emotional support animals are the embodiment of the scientific fact that animals can have life-changing effects on the mental health of humans.

First let’s talk about mental health

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are not things people can “just get over.” It would be nice if the mind was that simple, but it’s not. In fact, there are a variety of factors that play into someone’s mental health, including things like chronic illness, past trauma, and current environments. And while you may have not needed an animal to help you cope with your mental health, even if you deal with something like depression or anxiety, that doesn’t mean an ESA isn’t the key to someone else’s mental wellness.

Dogs are individuals. People are individuals.

How we experience mental health is individualistic – and some people need dogs (or other animals) to help them through that experience.

What do ESAs Do?

Emotional support animals don’t require special training. They don’t perform tasks like guidework, bracing, fetching, alerts, etc… the way that service dogs do. They’re companion animals. If they’re a dog, they dog. If they’re a cat, they cat. If they’re a bird, they bird.

(And yes, any animal can be an ESA.)

What’s different about emotional support animals actually has nothing to do with the animal at all. It has to do with the person who needs the animal.

Contrary to popular belief (and perhaps popular practice), you cannot get a legal certificate for an ESA on the internet. You can only legally have an emotional support animal if your mental health provider determines that you have a debilitating mental illness and that the presence of an animal in your life is an important part of your mental health treatment plan.

Let’s say it louder for the people in the back:


Emotional support animals can be part of a mental health treatment plan.


Mental health is personal, so the way ESAs affect their humans will vary. What’s more, it’s not for us to judge or to even know how someone’s ESA helps them cope with their mental health. That’s between that person and their mental health professional.

What’s the difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Psychiatric Service Dog?

Psychiatric service dogs (PSD) are trained to perform particular tasks consistently and on cue for people with disabilities. Emotional support animals keep someone calm simply by existing in that person’s life or doing something they would naturally do on their own, like cuddling up to someone who is sad.

Not every dog can be a service dog, but any dog (or animal) can be an ESA. They require no special training. 

What rights do people with ESAs have?

If an ESA is part of your mental health treatment plan:

You have the right to have your dog fly in the cabin with you on an airplane, according to the Air Carrier Access Act.

Your ESA is allowed in housing that is not pet-friendly and you are not required to pay a pet deposit for your ESA.

If your emotional support animal is a dog, your dog is exempt from any state/city/town breed specific legislation. (*Note that this should also apply to airlines under the ACAA, which is why Delta’s policy is discriminatory and illegal.)

Purchasing a certificate online for your dog does not give you legal protection. It does not make your dog (or other animal) an ESA. These sites are scams and you are breaking the law if a licensed mental health professional did not prescribe one for you.

What rights don’t people with ESAs have?

The law doesn’t grant you public access rights when you are with your ESA. This means you cannot take your ESA into a non-pet friendly public space, like a grocery store or any other retail store that doesn’t otherwise allow pets. When you are outside of your home or outside of an airplane, your emotional support animal is just like any other pet in the eyes of the public and the law.

Let’s be clear:

We know that a lot of people are breaking the law and pretending to have a disability so that they can have their pet on a plane or bypass pet deposits in housing. We won’t deny that people are committing disability fraud. 

But another thing we won’t do is contribute to the stigma of mental illness and deny people with disabilities their right to use emotional support animals as part of their mental health treatment.

Let’s support people who seek treatment for their mental health. And let’s also be very clear that when someone lies about their dog being an ESA, they are lying about having a disability and making a mockery out of the very serious issue of mental health.

Get Involved with Our Work

Make a Donation


Host a Fundraising Event


Post on Social Media


Become a Corporate Partner and Sponsor a Program or Event


Latest Articles

Delta Is Discriminating Against People with Disabilities and Their Service Dogs

Delta Is Discriminating Against People with Disabilities and Their Service Dogs

Delta Is Discriminating Against People with Disabilities and Their Service Dogs
June, 2018
Delta announced that it is no longer recognizing what they call “bull type dogs” as service dogs. Make no mistake, this regulation discriminates against people with disabilities who need service dogs. It denies them access to travel and access to living the same lives as everyone else.

This decision doesn’t make any scientific sense either. According to hard science, there is no inherent difference between one dog and another dog. All dogs are individuals. For Delta to single out dogs based on an arbitrary label is a practice based entirely around a fallacy.

It’s also against both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

Depending on the situation, laws around service dogs aren’t always governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the case of air travel, these situations defer to the ACAA, although in some cases, like in airports themselves, the ADA still applies. (View a full chart of the how these regulations differ.) Delta’s service animal policy falls under the ACAA, which does give them a bit more freedom to adopt their own policies – but not much.

The ACAA states that all service animals must be permitted except if they:

– Are too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin
– Pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others
– Cause a significant disruption of cabin service
– Are prohibited from entering a foreign country

None of these things makes it acceptable for Delta to ban dogs based on an arbitrary label, in this case, “bull type dogs” or “pit bull type dogs” – Delta uses both terms interchangeably.  The airline, which calls these discriminatory policies “enhancements,” states:

The enhancements include introducing a limit of one emotional support animal per customer per flight and no longer accepting pit bull type dogs as service or support animals. These updates, which come as the peak summer travel season is underway, are the direct result of growing safety concerns following recent incidents in which several employees were bitten.”

Delta’s regulations cite “bull type dogs” as the only canines on their list of banned animals. Other animals on this list include, hedgehogs, rodents, snakes, spiders, reptiles, and animals with horns or hooves. Science says that dogs are dogs and there’s no scientific reason anyone should ban an arbitrary group of dogs from anything.

It’s terrible that people were bitten by dogs on a plane. It’s also terrible that many break the law and commit fraud by faking a disability so that they can bring their pet on a plane. These two things are likely connected.

What isn’t connected is what this has to do with “pit bull” dogs or why it should result in the further discrimination of people with service dogs.

And yes, that’s what we’re talking about here. People with disabilities have service dogs of all shapes and sizes who perform all different types of jobs. Because there is no legal definition of what makes a “pit bull” dog, countless people with disabilities will buy their tickets, show up at the gate, and be turned away. Some people have already purchased tickets through Delta and now need to cancel their flight and possibly their entire trip because of discrimination.

While it’s tempting to say “don’t like it, don’t do business with them,” we need to look deeper. Sure, people can fly on another airline, but why can’t they fly Delta? Because Delta is discriminating against them. We aren’t comfortable letting discrimination stand and you shouldn’t be either.

Not only is Delta being discriminatory, they’re also breaking ACAA regulations. As we mentioned, there’s nothing in the regulations that permits the airline to deny “pit bull” dogs (or whatever label someone subjectively wants to assign to them) as service dogs. We’ve contacted Delta and the Department of Transportation for more details so that we can help them develop non-discriminatory solutions, but we have not heard back.

If you have been discriminated against by an airline, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation.

The DOT is considering making revisions to the Air Carrier Access Act. They are requesting comments from the public prior to making any changes. You can leave your thoughtful comment on before July 9, 2018.

Below are some bullet points to help you draft your response:

  • The purpose of accessibility policies to make the world accessible to everyone. Policies banning dogs who look a certain way creates a more inaccessible world.
  • Delta’s new policy discriminates against people with disabilities.
  • There is no standard definition of what makes a dog a “pit bull” or a “bull type.” These are arbitrary terms based on subjective visual identification. They have no basis in science. 
  • In fact, science says visual identification of dogs is highly inaccurate.
  • Research shows that looks don’t equal behavior. Genetics are only part of what makes a dog who they are. 
  • All dogs are individuals and we must view them as such.

Get Involved with Our Work

Make a Donation


Host a Fundraising Event


Post on Social Media


Become a Corporate Partner and Sponsor a Program or Event


Latest Articles

It’s Time for Animal Welfare Organizations to Value Dogs Over Corporations

It’s Time for Animal Welfare Organizations to Value Dogs Over Corporations

It’s Time for Animal Welfare Organizations to Value Dogs Over Corporations

May, 2018

It’s a common thing for people in animal welfare to speak out about breed-discriminatory policies, whether they be at the county or state level, or even housing restrictions. Yet, people largely remain silent when it comes to companies with discriminatory policies.

In fact, many animal welfare organizations routinely partner and promote such businesses. That has to stop.

We all need to ask ourselves if justice matters more than a business deal.

The silence surrounding United Airlines’ latest banned “breed” list is deafening. While individual animal welfare workers have spoken out, organizations as a whole have not. Many are actively supporting United’s business – which means they either condone or don’t care about doing what’s right.

Here’s what we know

United Airlines’ list includes nearly 50 “breeds,” as well as any mix thereof.

Some of the breeds were included for health reasons, as brachycephalic (stubby nosed) dogs overheat easily and already suffer from breathing issues. The airline is also halting pet reservations to some locations during the summer months due to high-temperature risks. We can’t throw any shade on them for science-based policies designed to protect pets.

Dogs United refers to as “strong-jawed” make the list. There is no scientific basis to refer to a dog as “strong-jawed.” This is based on the myth that some dogs bite differently. It’s been debunked. The use of the term and the inclusion of dogs based on the idea are discriminatory.

Many of the supposed breeds on the list don’t actually exist.

We all need to ask ourselves if justice matters more than a business deal.

Here’s what we don’t know

Who determines the breed or breed mix of someone’s dog? Many people don’t know their dog’s heritage. Does United administer genetic testing? Even if they did, it doesn’t change the fact that “strong-jawed dogs” aren’t a thing. Plus, how can they determine that a dog falls under one of the breeds on the list when said breed isn’t considered real?

We’re confused and we bet a lot of United customers will be equally confused and denied access.

Here’s Something else we know

Animal welfare organizations are supporting fake science and discriminatory policies.

The Humane Society of the United States names United as their airline of choice for their Animal Care Expo. For 10% off, you too can support discrimination against dog owners! Then you can attend a conference where people talk about animal welfare, including the science that all dogs are individuals and that how breed or breed mix doesn’t make a dog inherently dangerous.

Again, we’re confused. How does HSUS reconcile these opposing views? Who knows! They’ve yet to make a public statement on their partnership with a discriminatory company.

We know that as animal welfare workers your funds are probably limited. A 10% discount on your flight might make a difference in whether or not you can attend a conference. But HSUS has a choice. Right now, they’re choosing to support injustice.

We also know that American Humane is working with the airline on creating healthier travel regulations for pets. This is a good thing. What’s not a good thing is that it’s crickets from American Humane when it comes to the banning of dogs based on stereotypes. Does their advocacy end at protecting the wellness of brachycephalic dogs? Based on their lack of response, it doesn’t include equality for all dogs and their owners.

To be trite, we have to talk the talk and walk the walk.
It’s not enough for individual animal welfare workers to stand up to the injustice of breed-discriminatory policies. Animal welfare organizations must do it, too. It’s not enough to throw out general statements about how discrimination is wrong and not based in fact. We have to address specific instances. That’s the only way change happens. As stewards of animal welfare and keeping pets with their families, it’s literally our job to challenge these bullshit restrictions.

Let’s all do better. Stand up. Speak up.

Get Involved with Our Work

Make a Donation


Host a Fundraising Event


Post on Social Media


Become a Corporate Partner and Sponsor a Program or Event


Latest Articles

Perpetuating the Myth of “Pit Bull” Dog High Pain Tolerance Doesn’t Help Dogs, It Hurts Them

Perpetuating the Myth of “Pit Bull” Dog High Pain Tolerance Doesn’t Help Dogs, It Hurts Them

Perpetuating the Myth of “Pit Bull” Dog High Pain Tolerance Doesn’t Help Dogs, It Hurts Them

At Animal Farm Foundation, we like science. We do love a good fairytale (because who doesn’t?), but simply because a story tugs at your heart, doesn’t make it true or helpful in moving society forward. In advocacy, you must always lead with the truth.

Unfortunately, many myths about “pit bull” dogs are so pervasive that many advocates believe them to be true and they use these stories as part of their outreach efforts.

A prime example of this is the myth that “pit bull” dogs have a higher tolerance for pain than other dogs.

One advocacy website writes:

“Sometimes presented as a negative trait, the fact that pitbulls [sic] have a high pain tolerance makes them exceptional family dogs. They easily (and happily) put up with the rough play of children without reacting.”

Not only is this statement factually incorrect, it feeds into the pro-BSL hysteria that “pit bull” dogs are uniquely different, dangerous, and therefore need to be regulated. It’s even shown up in court as justification for breed bans.

There is nothing unique about the neurological system of a “pit bull” dog.

They’re just dogs.

If this was a fact, we wouldn’t argue it. But, it’s not a fact. It’s a myth. There is nothing unique about the neurological system of a “pit bull” dog

All dogs, regardless of how they look or their genetic heritage, experience pain. How each individual dog responds to that pain will vary, but you cannot predict that response based on the dog’s physical appearance or heritage.

Tufts Veterinary Medicine Magazine addressed the “pit bull” dog high pain tolerance myth in their Winter 2013 issue:

“Pain medicine as a veterinary specialty is relatively new. As recently as a decade ago, most veterinarians assumed that animals didn’t feel pain, or at least experienced it differently than humans. Now all evidence points to the contrary. Research has shown that animals and humans have similar neural pathways for the development, conduction and modulation of pain, making it pretty likely that our pets experience pain in much same the way we do.”

The Myth Might Put a Dog’s Comfort and Care At Risk

The article goes on to say that even in people, pain is often undertreated. Michael Petty, president of the International Veterinary Academy, says:

“If we’re looking at practically half of the human population that’s in pain getting undertreated, I have to believe that over 95 percent of animals in [chronic] pain are not getting proper treatment.”

This means that a lot of pets are not getting the pain relief they desperately need. Part of this might be because of the “pit bull” dog high pain tolerance myth. While dogs can’t speak up for themselves in a way we can clearly understand, they do let us know inform us of things in a variety of ways, but we might completely miss these important signals if we’ve already written off pain as a problem our dogs might experience.

(For more on how pain may present in a dog’s body, please read the full article.)

(For more on how pain may present in a dog’s body, please read the full article.)

The High Pain Tolerance Myth Can Result in Negative Consequences for People and Pets

The myth implies:


  • That parents can allow their children to inappropriately handle “pit bull” dogs in a rough manner. The experts on family dog safety tell us that this type of rough play leads to dog bites – no matter what the dog’s genetic heritage dog may be. To reduce dog bites and increase pet retention, children should always be taught to treat all dogs gently and respectfully.
  • That dog owners should be alarmed if their “pit bull” dog does not “happily” accept rough play from children. If the dogs react, something must be wrong with them, right? Wrong. All dogs deserve to be handled respectfully and will have varying tolerance levels for physical play. There’s nothing wrong with dogs who prefers gentle play (or no play at all) with children.
  • It suggests that “pit bull” dogs are biologically different than other dogs. For people that are afraid of “pit bull” dogs, the high pain tolerance myth suggests the dogs are uniquely capable of causing damage because they cannot be stopped by regular management techniques.
  • It makes a convenient excuse for humans that wish to exploit them and/or abuse them. It should go without saying that we should never justify cruelty by suggesting the victims have a high tolerance for being abused.

There Is No Benefit to Focusing on Fiction Over Fact

There are many ways to promote the wonderful pet qualities and proper care of “pit bull” dogs without having to resort to perpetuating myths.

Now that we know better, we have an obligation to consider the way we communicate on behalf of the dogs and the information we’re sharing. Dogs are depending on us to stop adding to their problems by recycling old content that has no basis in science.

However, if you’d like to discuss the science of how dogs experience pain, here are some talking points:

  • The perception of pain is unique to each individual, human or dog. Factors that affect each dog’s individual response to pain include age, gender, and health status. Individual situations also affect a dog’s reaction. If a dog is engaged in work or a sport, it can affect how they perceive pain in that moment (just like humans).
  • Recognizing and determining the source of pain in dogs can be a challenge, especially since the early signs of pain can be subtle. One of the best ways to assess pain in any dog is to know what’s normal for them. Pay attention to your dog’s every day, regular behavior and habits, so that you’ll readily notice anything abnormal.
  • There is nothing unique about the neurological system of a “pit bull” dog. All dogs, regardless of heritage, experience pain. How each dog responds to that pain will vary, but the response cannot be predicted by physical appearance or breed.

Advocacy should move society forward. To do so, we must advocate with facts and not myths. Learn more about better ways to advocate for all dogs and their families in the Community Advocates section of our website.

Want to learn more about how you can participate in our work?

Latest Articles

The First Story You Tell About a Shelter Dog Has the Power to Change Their Life

The First Story You Tell About a Shelter Dog Has the Power to Change Their Life

The first story you ever tell about a shelter dog will stick with that dog for the rest of the time they are in your care – and possibly the rest of their life. That first story is usually the dog’s biography. It’s on your website, it’s on sites like Petfinder, and it’s usually on your social media in some form.  So, you want the tone of that story and the emotion it evokes to be positive and reflect who that dog is as an individual.