Emotional support animals pose legal risks for psychologists – study

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Cassie Boness: "Although emotional support animals can be pets, they are not considered pets under the law." Photo: University of Missouri
Cassie Boness: “Although emotional support animals can be pets, they are not considered pets under the law.” Photo: University of Missouri

Pets certified as emotional support animals, who come in all shapes and sizes, from cat and dogs to miniature horses, carry potential legal risks for pscyhologists, research suggests.

Investigations carried out at the University of Missouri have highlighted the legal issues of certifying emotional support animals. Researchers are cautioning mental health professionals who certify such animals about the legal risks.

Emotional support animals are different to those classified under law as service animal. A service animal can help owners with disabilities navigate daily tasks. They are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as those with months or years of training that serve a specific disability-related function, such as seeing-eye dogs.

However, people not necessarily exhibiting a mental or physical disability are eluding the system by asking their mental health professionals to certify “emotional support animals”. These animals are not recognized by the ADA, have little to no specific training and often can be certified through the internet.

Now, University of Missouri researchers are exploring the effects these requests are having on the mental health profession as well as outlining the potential legal ramifications psychologists could face by certifying them.

Researchers recommend that psychologists refrain from issuing certifications to avoid the ethical and legal risks associated with certifying emotional support animals.

“Although emotional support animals can be pets, they are not considered pets under the law,” said Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology in the university’s College of Arts and Science.

“Often, special accommodations must be afforded to individuals who need emotional support animals, to assist them psychologically,” she says.

For example, housing that prohibits pets must allow emotional support animals and landlords must waive any fees or pet deposits. Airlines, too, are required to allow emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the main aircraft cabin.

“As a result, it can be implied that some patients who claim they need emotional support animals are doing so to avoid higher rent and fees.”

Boness, working with forensic psychologist Jeffrey Younggren, a clinical professor at the university, and their team, reviewed several studies as well as delineated the legal differences between emotional support animals and service animals.

They suggest that mental health professionals who certify emotional support animals could potentially face legal ramifications. The lack of scientific guidelines regarding such animals would make it difficult for psychologists to defend their actions in court, Younggren said.

“The psychotherapist is stating that the person needing the emotional support animal has a disability and that the presence of the animal addresses it,” Boness said. “However, if a pet owner asks a psychologist to certify a dog as an emotional support animal, allowing the pet in the owner’s apartment — and then that pet bites a child — the psychologist might have to go to court to defend her decision if the landlord challenges it.

“Legally, they’d be implicated.”

For now, Boness and Younggren recommend that therapeutic psychologists — those who treat patients — should refrain from issuing certifications to their patients for emotional support animals. Instead, they should refer those services to a forensic psychologist, who serve more of an administrative function such as being an expert witness in court.

The team now is working on their next research study that will survey mental health professionals to help guide the development of guidelines for mental health professionals who want to certify emotional support animals.

The study, “Examining Emotional Support Animals and Role Conflicts in Professional Psychology” was recently published in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Jennifer Boisvert, a private practitioner in Beverly Hills, California, contributed to the study.

One thought on “Emotional support animals pose legal risks for psychologists – study

  • August 2, 2018 at 3:01 am
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    Thank you for your article. I am confused about in what way the therapist would be certifying the animal as an ESA? In my opinion, the therapist only has training and scope to claim to certify that the patient has a psychological disability that is alleviated (in that particular patient’s case) by the presence of their ESA. I think limiting the claim the therapist is making in support of the animal’s presence in places where animals are not usually allowed would avoid any liability for the actions of the animal, would it not? Thank you.

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