Anyone reading the news, or at least the disability news, understands that so called emotional support animals for persons with mental disabilities are a big deal. The number of HUD complaints based on refusals to allow ESA’s is growing, and there is a booming industry filing complaints, selling fake service dog paraphernalia, and selling bogus diagnosis of disability. With all this going on, it might be reasonable to ask whether there is any evidence at all that ESA’s at home or on an airplane are really of any value at all to a person who is disabled. Despite the noise from animal advocates, the science doesn’t support their claims.
In a July 2, 2017 article the Washington Post explains that the answer is, at best, maybe. “Therapy Animals are Everywhere” explains some of the doubt about what whether ESA’s really help people. While the article suggests that evidence is starting to grow that ESA’s do help, the fact is that the only evidence comes from using animals on a temporary basis for therapy. The idea that a dog or cat or giraffe at home helps those with PTSD or depression in a way that is different from the general benefit to everyone of having a pet is based on anecdotes, not science.*
You can also learn something about the true helpfulness of ESA’s by looking at who is willing to pay for them. In its 2012 regulations concerning service dogs and other animals the Veteran’s Administration excluded mental health service dogs from the services it will provide to veterans. Explaining why the regulations exclude service dogs for those with mental impairments the VA wrote: “the only evidence submitted in support of this assertion were anecdotal accounts of subjective benefits” and “we cannot reasonably use these subjective accounts as a basis for the administration of VA benefits.” 77 Fed. Reg. at 54370. In other words, there isn’t any science to back up the idea that service dogs help those with mental impairments.
The VA is conducting a study of the helpfulness of service dogs, but it has been re-started a number of times because of safety concerns as described in this article from VA Research Currents. “VA restarting study on service dogs and PTSD” The safety concerns are exactly those HUD should be most concerned about: “VA launched a pilot the next year, but the study was halted after two service dogs bit children in Veterans’ homes. Further problems with the health and training of some of the dogs led to a second suspension of the study in 2012.” (same article).
Animal advocates have continued to push for VA benefits, but the situation hasn’t really changed since the original 2012 regulations. In 2016 Congressional hearings on VA benefits Dr. Michael Fallon, Chief Veterinary Medical Officer for the Office of Research and Development stated that “the benefits of service dogs in assisting people with mental health diagnoses have not been established in scientific literature.”**
Before a landlord must grant a reasonable accommodation to a tenant seeking a waiver of a “no pets” policy or a pet deposit the tenant must show that he or she has a disability related need for the animal. There is no scientific evidence that any mentally disabled tenant ever has a disability related need for an ESA because there is no evidence that they provide any benefit to the disabled individual***. HUD doesn’t care, of course, and will process an ESA complaint just like a complaint based on race discrimination or any other conventional kind of discrimination. The cost of this disregard of the scientific evidence is borne by landlords, who must waive deposits and accept dangerous breeds like pit bulls or face the threat of HUD action. While the VA is looking for science to support ESA’s, perhaps Congress could require HUD to base its policies on the science we already have.
*See, Younggren, Boisvert & Boness, “Examining emotional support animals and role conflicts in professional psychology.” and Herzog, “Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Really Work?”
**quoted by ABC News, “Marine is on a Mission”
*** whether most individuals with mental impairments are in fact disabled is an important question. In many cases, the answer is almost certainly no. See our earlier notice “Hunt Article Published” for an introduction to the complexities of this issue, or email for additional information on the case law in this area.