New rules possible for emotional support animals

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, March 4th, 2020 at 11:31 PM

In January, the United States Department of Transportation proposed a new rule allowing airlines to stop accepting Emotional Support Animals (ESA) on planes, but have an exception for service dogs who are trained to help their owner.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, an ESA is “an animal companion that offers some type of benefit to an individual with some form of disability. The animal is intended to provide companionship and support that will help alleviate at least one aspect of the disability.”

Many people, including myself, have mental health problems that could qualify them to have an ESA. Some may find it debilitating to travel or live alone, or may need Pro Re Nata (PRN) medications to do so.

To obtain an ESA letter, the legal way, the person would have to meet with a medical practitioner who specifies in mental health, such as a therapist or psychiatrist.

Julie Schaefer, a licensed psychiatric physician assistant at Bay City Psychiatry in Erie, is considered a medical professional allowed to write out legal letters for an ESA.

“There are companies professing to give a letter for an ESA,” said Schaefer. “However, these can only be certified by a medical practitioner with a license who can give a psychiatric code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).”

Schaefer continued to say anyone could write their own letters and present their animal as an ESA, but without the medical professional validation, the letter has no accountability.

Fake letters from online happen to hurt people like myself who spend years trying to obtain legal letters. It took almost five years of a medical professional’s help in my case to get my ESA rabbit, Lilith.

In June 2017, a passenger was attacked by a man’s ESA dog with online ESA paperwork. According to ABC News, the incident happened after owner and dog sat down in their seat. The dog had growled at the victim before attacking him in the face.

There are airlines that will allow passengers to have their ESA with them as long as they fit in the passenger’s space or they may buy out the seat next to them when booking their flight.

Some airlines, on the other hand, do not see ESAs as an animal required to help their owner with mental health issues, but as a pet their owner just wants to take along with them.

Most airlines will require notice before their flights that a passenger will be flying with their ESA. Some will also require that the passenger signs a form stating their ESA can behave in public.

Since I have Lilith, she would most likely sit in a carrier like she does when I take her to the vet. Since she is a rabbit there’s no way for me to train her to sit and be quiet, rabbits are quiet on their own and she just sits in her carrier enjoying the view in a car ride it would be the same on an airline.

“Currently, a real letter for travel is drawn up by a licensed health care practitioner with supporting medical documentation on the letter head substantiating the DSM-V code and can be backed with medical records from the treating practitioner,” Schaefer said. “Including their signature and medical license.”

Schaefer helps various people with depression, anxiety, panic, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other psychiatric diagnosis.

According to the United States National Library of Medicine and National Institute of Health, PRN medications tend to be taken when they are needed, sometimes once a day or up to three times a day depending on the medication.

“Owners of pets that established an emotional bond have less anxiety and feel more secure when traveling or living with their pet,” said Schaefer, “If it improves their symptoms of diagnosis or reduces the need for their meds, then it can provide a larger benefit.”

I have found my own mental health eased since I’ve had my ESA with me at home and on campus this year. My freshman year was a bit harder for me to be on my own, but this year with Lilith, I’ve kept on top of my schoolwork, my personal health, and my social life. I’m not sure what I would do this year if I didn’t have her here with me.

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