A Word About "Emotional-Support Animals"

Some years ago, I went through a particularly rough patch in my life. My dogs were a guaranteed factor in my survival of those years, as they provided -- I'm not telling you anything you don't already know -- unlimited unconditional love, a safe place to pour out all my thoughts and words and feelings, and their own continuously optimistic outlook on life: "How bad can life really be, after all, if there's that tree to go sniff ... just right over there! Come on! Let's go look! And, wait, what's that? A squirrel?!? Holy crap, this is gonna be a great day!!"

During those difficult years, I needed to take a plane trip, actually for my dog who needed a surgery not available in Alaska at that time. I was, not surprisingly, concerned about her flying in a crate in the belly of the plane. So my physician offered to write me a letter indicating she was my "therapy dog," so she could fly in the plane's passenger compartment with me. It was a very kind gesture on the part of my physician, one that came from a place of compassion and sympathy for my own hard times. He knew all the comfort my dogs were providing me as I navigated some difficult waters of my own. 

[Note: In this post, I am going to interchangeably use the terms "therapy animal" and "Emotional Support animal" precisely because others do, as you will see below. To be clear, I am not referring here to true "therapy" dogs who help disabled people open doors, or aura-detecting dogs who provide medical support to warn epileptics of impending seizures, or any of the other myriad of remarkable animals providing genuine medical and physical assistance to impaired humans. I am speaking primarily about the rise of the Emotional Support Animal, whose definition is nebulous as best.]

But my dog was not -- is not -- a "therapy" dog. My dog is my pet and family member, whom I love... a lot. At times, I have loved her more than life itself. (Many times, really.) Having her in my life makes it easier for me to navigate the world -- easier to go out and do my difficult job as an ER vet every day; easier to be a member of a society that mostly fails to embrace or celebrate my own quiet, introverted ways and is instead loud and fast and aggressive -- just knowing she's at home waiting for me at the end of any potentially troubling day. That idea all by itself is a balm for my soul. So, yes, she does provide emotional support. But that does not make her an "Emotional Support Animal."

The definition of therapy animal has become quite flexible. But as one congressman so quotably uttered in a federal hearing on obscenity, that he couldn't define obscenity but "I'll know it when I see it," so, too, do I have at least some idea when people are trying to bullshit the "therapy pet" system. 

Last week a man came into the clinic with a young cat who had suffered a trauma and needed an expensive surgery which he was financially unable to afford. Quickly listed amongst the reasons I should perform the procedure for free included that the cat -- a six-month-old kitten, mind -- was his wife's therapy cat. I didn't ask for clarification because I already deal with enough crap on my job that listening to him add some potential lies to his story was not going to enrich my day any. As it was, I was already going to have to tell this man, No, I cannot donate not only my services but also the services and supplies of the clinic owner as well as the services and time of the technicians who would help with the cat's surgery and post-operative care and recovery. So why add to my own mental burden to inquire in what way this six-month-old kitten was a "therapy cat," already, at this age? And, if so, then why the fuck do they let it play outdoors where there are things like automobiles and large dogs just lurking out there in the world waiting to spring their deadly traps, especially without having funds to provide care should some illness or injury befall said therapy pet?

But what I did notice was that the status of this "therapy animal" was mentioned long before the owner demonstrated any real concern for the cat's pain & suffering from the trauma. You could argue that the owner's concern for the cat should be obvious (since they had brought it in to the clinic for care, after all), but you'd be wrong. As a twenty-year veteran in the ER business, I'm not an expert at reading people, but I'm no slouch, either. I can usually tell when a person has the pet's needs as first priority and when, conversely, the pet is merely an object, a symbol of something: it used to a valued object, and now it's just this annoying thing that needs to be fixed and is going to cost money they were hoping to spend on a new widescreen TV. 

There's a spectrum, of course, and few people are so foolish as to stride brazenly into our clinic proclaiming "it's just a dog," because, brother, do they get an earful. However, along that spectrum there are a fair number of people who wanted a dog as a placeholder to enrich the appearance of their lives to others, rather than as a truly enriching experience of sharing their lives with another sentient being. Maybe they feel their family Christmas photo isn't complete without a big dopey Golden Retriever in it. Or they need a little bling-laden Chihuahua to nestle into their bosom as they prance around Pier 1 Imports. For some of these people, having a "therapy pet" is an external sign that says "Look at me, I'm vulnerable and special. Please don't hurt me but pay attention to me nonetheless."

To be clear, I am not dismissing mental illness. Believe me, I know about mental illness. It is real and devastating and sadly under-respected in Western societies. But it is precisely in defense of those who are genuinely mentally ill and in need of the sort of support only therapy animals can provide, that I protest those who are -- knowingly or otherwise just swept up in the trend -- charlatans. Because those who genuinely rely on therapy animals behave differently around them than those who do not. Those who truly need therapy animals tend to be quieter and less showy about it. They are respectful toward their pets and demonstrate the sort of bond one does not typically have with a mere accessory. 

Don't believe me? Go to Amazon's website and search for "Emotional Support Animal."  Just this morning, I found over four hundred options to choose from. Vests emblazoned with large-print letters. Leashes. Collars. Tags. ID cards. Certificates. 

All of Barbie's accessories, right there. No doctor's note required. 

Not too long ago, a woman made international news by trying to take an Emotional Support peacock onto an airplane, and the airline refused. The woman was labeled ridiculous, but only because peacocks are funny animals. This sort of crap happens all the time with dogs and cats. And how qualified is an airline representative or restaurant waiter or theater usher to distinguish a genuine therapy animal from a fake one, thereby risking, at the very least, an outraged outburst from a person who has publicly advertised their willingness to parade their emotional fragility in front of others? And possibly even a lawsuit, even if it's bogus?

There's no real answer, of course. Like the welfare system, imposing harsher restrictions risks also culling those who genuinely need the care they're seeking. But for the charlatans out there, you should know that most of us in the veterinary community may not say anything aloud, but you're not fooling anyone at our house.

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