A survey of mental health professionals has cast a spotlight on the legal and clinical complexities around certifying emotional support animals, which can range from dogs and cats to miniature horses.
Little consensus exists when it comes to the certification of emotional support animals. In contrast, service animals that help owners navigate daily tasks have been legally recognized and accommodated for decades. They often have years of training to help them serve disability-related functions.
Emotional support animals usually have little or no specific training, which poses a challenge for mental health professionals who are asked to certify them.
Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have conducted a survey to examine what techniques and instruments mental health professionals are using to aid in their determinations of whether certification of an emotional support animal is appropriate.
Their recommendations could help mental health practitioners make better judgments when certifying such animals and steer policy-making decisions for housing and travel sectors.
“Emotional support animals are legally different from service animals, such as guide dogs,” explains Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology in the university’s College of Arts and Science.
“An emotional support animal usually provides companionship, relieves loneliness and sometimes helps with anxiety or depression.”
She says that although emotional support animals can be pets, they are not considered as such under the law and sometimes special accommodations must be afforded to individuals who have them.
“Because of this requirement, owners seek out ways to get their pets certified without thinking about the ramifications of their actions.”
Federal and state laws regulating emotional support animals often are convoluted and ever-changing. For example, landlords who normally prohibit pets must allow them and waive any fees or pet deposits. Airlines are required to allow them to accompany their owners in the main cabins of aircraft.
As a result, it can be implied that some patients who claim they need emotional support animals are doing so to “buck the system,” causing a dilemma for mental health professionals who often are tasked with certifying these animals, Boness says.
Boness, working with Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at the university, surveyed 87 mental health professionals, 31 percent of whom had made recommendations for emotional support animals.
Survey participants were required to read policies related to the animals, including the Department of Transportation’s requirements for airline travel. Participants then answered questions about the certifying process.
The survey showed that both clinical and forensic practitioners are making recommendations for the animals; both groups believe certifying them was appropriate for treating patients.
However, recommendations from Boness and Younggren indicate that clinicians should not certify them and doing so can trigger ethical and legal challenges, including a pending case in Colorado.
Based on their findings, Boness and Younggren recommend that:
- Requests for emotional support animals should be met with the same thoroughness that is found in any disability evaluation;
- Professional guidelines outlining the types of assessments, who conducts them and how they are conducted are needed;
- Local, statewide and national policymakers should consult with mental health professionals as they vet and evaluate future legislation.
“A clinical practitioner’s primary goal is treatment; often, personal relationships with their clients can lead to biased assessments and a willingness to certify emotional support animals,” Younggren explains.
“Forensic psychologists, such as those who give expert testimony on mental capacity in court, often use comprehensive methods to assess patients. These mental health professionals generally don’t have relationships with those they are assessing, are much more objective and are likely to certify emotional support animals correctly.”
The study, “The Certification of Emotional Support Animals: Differences between Clinical and Forensic Mental Health Practitioners,” has been accepted for publication in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.