Melanie Payne (Tell Mel)

The News Press, Local

Fort Myers, Florida March 20, 2016

Melanie Payne writes that she has little doubt that a dog, cat or bird can help ameliorate symptoms of some people who suffer from a mental disorder. But, she asks, “at what point do we allow those few people helped by companion animals to interfere with the health, safety and emotional well-being of the rest of us?” She emphasizes that she is not talking about “service animals”, especially dogs, which have been highly trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. An emotional support animal, often called “comfort dogs”, she continues, helps people with mental or emotional disabilities cope with life. However, she adds, it doesn’t have to be just dogs – it can be any companion animal, for example, a cat, bird, hedgehog, pig or a snake. She opines “A letter from a doctor or mental health professional becomes your prescription to flout housing rules. The letter means that you can even fly to any U.S. destination with that animal without paying an extra charge.

The National Service Animal Registry (U.S.) states that if a person has an “emotional support animal prescribed by a licensed mental health professional, the Fair Housing Amendments Act, 1988, requires the landlord/property manager to make a reasonable accommodation to their policies and allow the tenant to have an emotional support animal.” The Act further says that, even if there is a “no-dog policy” and you have a pit bull, “they must allow your pit bull to reside with you.” This applies to condominium and home owners associations which must make accommodations if a person has supplied documentation from a health professional that the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms of an existing disability.

In the U.S. it is relatively easy to have your pet identified as an emotional support animal. One can enroll on the web and pay $199 USD for a “medical exam” and a “compassion plan” which includes a travel and housing letter. The travel letters permits one to travel on a commercial airline with any animal(s) deemed necessary for emotional health. The “housing letter” will allow you to live with your animal in a housing complex, apartment, condominium or mobile home park no matter what the rules are about pets. Other tenants and owners complain because the support animals are not trained, can sometimes be unruly and barking and running loose.

Some citizens object to people carrying support dogs wherever they go, especially places where food is served. Some may even use their support animals as attention-getting devices and allow others to pet their animal, unlike the situation with service dogs. Others add that there is a lot of public confusion with the proliferation of emotional support animals and getting these animals confused with service dogs for the blind. They use up the goodwill of people who accept guide dogs in restaurants and other places of public accommodation. It is further suggested that the owners of guide dogs for the blind are competing with badly behaved dogs. Others submit that it is too easy for people to use their pets under the guise of being an “emotional support animal” to flout the “no pet rules”. Also, there are people who are seriously afraid of animals or others who are severely allergic to pets. One may well ask: “Don’t these folks have rights too?”