How my utterly unsuitable dog became an 'emotional support animal'

Internet vendors make certification too easy

January 23, 2017 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo by Tami Dettinger
Author Phyllis DeGioia’s 6-year-old hyperactive, in-your-face dog Zita is an official emotional support animal thanks to lax standards exploited by internet vendors.
Based on a short online questionnaire and a 15-minute telephone conversation, I am officially certifiable.

My mental health is in such dire straits, apparently, that a licensed psychologist wrote a letter stating that my condition warrants the use of an emotional support animal (ESA), a descriptor of animals legally recognized as providing therapeutic benefit to someone with a psychiatric disability. Like a service dog, that ESA can fly on planes with me for free, and any landlord of mine must let the animal live with me even if pets aren't allowed otherwise.

I signed up for this service just to find out if I could get away with it. About $240 was all it took!

Here's my letter. It looks very official, although I'm not sure an airline will take it because my last name is misspelled. Not that I'm going to find out; I just wanted to test a system that allows people to buy benefits they don't warrant.

In the letter, the identity of the psychologist is blocked out because my beef isn’t with her specifically. My problem is this: Every time John Q. Public perceives the rights of disabled people as a privileged loophole, we erode public tolerance of laws designed to help them. Selling these letters to those who don’t need them undermines the intent and spirit of the law. By doing so, we dance down a Yellow Brick Road toward repeal of a law that was meant to help those truly in need.

But it’s all about me and what I want, right? Entitlement is the norm these days.

While many conditions warrant the use of an ESA, I don’t have one: I'm not bipolar, schizophrenic, depressed or suicidal. I’m not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and don’t have an anxiety disorder or any phobias. My extroverted exuberance precludes any social anxiety.

Before talking to the psychologist, I had to fill out an online questionnaire. The first question was if I had ever been in a life-or-death experience. I said no and wasn’t allowed to continue. So I dredged up a memory from the 8th grade that I hadn’t thought about in 30 years. I was on the beach under a cliff when a car came over the railing in free fall directly toward me. I was so afraid that I could not stand up to run. I had to crawl away. The car landed close to my beach towel. It sounds fearsome and it was, but the fact is that the experience left no lasting trauma. It doesn’t affect me at all as an adult. Nevertheless, recounting the event allowed me to continue the questionnaire.

Next, I mentioned that an old boyfriend I'd been seeing again casually later walked away without a word. "Relationship difficulties" factor in. If you are at all sad that some romantic or even pseudo-romantic relationship has ended, it will help you get ESA certification. Got stood up for prom? You might qualify.

Physical health counts, too.

My health has caused three significant scares in the past couple of years (pertinent, according to the psychologist). Now everything is cured or well-managed. I work out regularly, dancing my way to happiness at Zumba, and keep a busy social calendar.

What I do have is a bit of garden-variety anxiety that sometimes causes a lack of focus. For this condition, I take 20 mg of paroxetine, an antidepressant. For years, I took a half-dose of 10 mg of this drug, but then the dose was increased because I felt an episode coming on; my doctor said sometimes you need more as you age. The increase headed off the episode, and I haven’t felt anxious since. I've taken an antidepressant for about 20 years, never more than the minimum therapeutic dose. Haven’t had a spell in several years. Nonetheless, it helps make me certifiable!

Are my occasional bouts of anxiety annoying to those around me? Yep. Are they a disability? No. Is an ESA medically necessary for me as outlined by the pertinent laws? Absolutely not.

Yet, I was able to purchase this certification from a psychologist who says I have such poor mental health that I am legally allowed to drag my hyper, overly friendly Pomeranian-schipperke mix onto a plane with me. That high, piercing bark of hers ought to go over as well as the emotional support pig who pooped in the aisle of a US Airways flight a couple of years ago while his owner was stowing her carry-on luggage.

A quick online search shows many entities out there willing to provide letters like the one I got. The provider I went with, ESA Doctors, offers a choice of three packages: one for flying only, one for housing only, and one for both. With the exception of why I thought I needed an ESA, I was honest in all the information I provided.

I'm guessing other online ESA sellers work more-or-less the same way.

There are things my letter doesn't authorize. I can't take my pet — I mean my ESA — into stores, restaurants or trains that don't allow them. The letter provides two benefits only: flying my animal for free in the cabin and access to housing where pets aren't allowed.

Is this activity legal?

The right to have an ESA certainly is, under two separate laws: the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.

The bigger question for me was whether it’s legal for a licensed psychologist to interview someone by phone and sell that person, sight unseen, a letter stipulating they have medical need of anything.

According to attorney Tulin Gurer of Moore & Moore in Davis, California, the central question is whether telehealth is permissible. Telemedicine is regulated by states, so the answer depends on the state in which the psychologist is licensed and practicing.

The psychologist who interviewed me is in New York. It’s legal in New York for psychologists licensed there to practice telehealth.

The thing is, I live in Wisconsin. She is not licensed here. A psychologist from one state legally certifying someone from a state in which the psychologist is not licensed could be a violation of state licensing laws. However, the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services says a psychologist can provide services in Wisconsin whenever the patient is in Wisconsin, regardless of the psychologist's location. So in this state, I can use a psychologist from New York.

The law slowly will catch up, Gurer predicts, so that we will see regulations addressing ESAs and certification letters in the near future.

For now, Gurer said, there is little to no regulation addressing ESAs directly and solely. The Americans with Disabilities Act defined service animals to explicitly exclude ESAs, but did not otherwise address them. Furthermore, while there is a significant amount of case law surrounding both service animals and ESAs, the vast majority of cases center on landlord-tenant disputes in which the conflict is whether landlords with “no pets allowed” policies should be forced to allow tenants’ ESAs on the property. Tenants almost always have won these cases.

I wanted to chat with a psychologist unrelated to the business of selling ESA certification to help me work through the gray areas. I reached Teri Wright of Santa Ana, California, who uses a registered therapy dog and whose work focuses on the effects of animals on people’s mental health. The first thing she asked me was what states were involved. When she learned my ESA psychologist is not licensed in my state, she said she would have a hard time with that.

And that question about a life-or-death situation in my past? Wright said the purpose of asking probably was to determine whether I had PTSD.

Once more with feeling: I don’t have it.

Unfortunately, Wright could not tell me where the line lies that constitutes a legitimate medical need for an ESA.

“You got me,” she said. “There isn't much research on whether or not it’s effective, so the jury is still out on it.”

One thing she wonders about psychologists writing these letters, valid or otherwise: "If the dog bites someone, who is responsible? You because of the dog, or me because of the letter?”

Gurer says the psychologist would not be liable because he or she has no connection to the animal — never sees it or vouches for its behavior or temperament.

Anyway, if you got stood up at prom or just want to fly your dog to the family reunion, talk to me. The company I used offers a gift to those providing referrals. If I’m entitled to bring my hyper dog on a plane because I need her to keep me calm, aren’t I entitled also to this $65 gift? You bet I am.

About the author: Phyllis DeGioia is editor of the Veterinary Information Network’s client-education resources, Veterinary Partner and VetzInsight. She also is a copy editor and reporter for the VIN News Service. She has been with VIN since 2002, and has a degree in English. Before the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, DeGioia’s mother was disabled due to multiple sclerosis. DeGioia has strong feelings about laws that assist the disabled. She adopted Zita from a shelter.

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