People who claim pets are emotional support animals to avoid apartment fees or bring them on planes are doing a disservice to those who truly rely on animals for assistance.
A recent story in The Gainesville Sun, the Daily Commercial's sister paper, looked at an increase in emotional support animals (ESAs), especially among college students. A 20-year-old University of Florida student said she had her 1-year-old pit bull mix, Luna, documented as an ESA to avoid an extra $300 fee and $50 a month to have the dog in a Gainesville apartment complex.
She told The Sun that she obtained the paperwork for Luna through her childhood pediatrician that she hadn't seen since the third grade. She also bought a $50 ESA ID card and a letter of registration online in case she was ever confronted.
"I never really heard about it until I got to college ... and I (now) don't have to pay for this or that," she said.
ESAs are different from service animals such as Seeing Eye dogs that are specially trained to assist individuals with disabilities. Yet while ESAs are not covered by the same federal anti-discrimination rules as service animals, in many cases ESAs are allowed to fly for free in passenger cabins rather than cargo holds and landlords can't refuse renters with ESAs.
Rules for flights are starting to change after an explosion in the number of ESAs being brought aboard planes. United Airlines reported flying about 76,000 ESAs last year, a 77 percent increase since 2016. Other airlines have seen similar increases.
The kinds of ESAs has also been a problem. Delta Air Lines experienced an incident in which a dog attacked a traveler last year, and has seen possums, snakes and spiders claimed as ESAs. A woman who tried to board a United Airlines flight in January with a peacock she said was an ESA led to new travel guidelines.
Starting this month, several airlines have put restrictions on ESAs such as banning “pit bull type” dogs and increased requirements for documentation. A lobbying group representing most of the major domestic airlines is now seeking stricter federal regulations on ESAs.
ESAs are also posing problems for apartment owners. A Gainesville contractor told The Sun that property managers are seeing a 15 to 20 percent loss in profits due to damages by ESAs in properties that are designed to be free of pets.
As The Sun story documented, ESAs do provide meaningful help to people with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. Individuals who have a legitimate reason for an ESA are harmed by those who abuse the system, as are those rely on service animals for sometimes unseen disabilities.
The problem is there is no national registry and certification process for ESAs, alllowing unscrupulous doctors and websites to document pets as ESAs for fraudulent reasons. Such a certification system should be created, as long as it could be done in a way to prevent it from being used to discriminate against people with disabilities and mental illnesses.