In recent years, the popularity of emotional support animals, or ESAs, has skyrocketed. Laws like the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act have allowed emotional support animals in pet-restricted housing, as well as on airplanes.

Cassie Boness, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, is working to establish guidelines for mental health professionals who wish to certify emotional support animals. Boness consults with and conducts webinars for landlords, airlines and mental health professionals to help them understand the laws regulating emotional support animals.

Cassie Boness, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, is working to establish guidelines for mental health professionals who wish to certify emotional support animals. Boness consults with and conducts webinars for landlords, airlines and mental health professionals to help them understand the laws regulating emotional support animals.

As more and more emotional support animals are seen wearing vests labelled ‘working dog’ or ‘please don’t pet’, the line between traditional service animals and emotional support animals is becoming increasingly blurry. Cassie Boness, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, is working to restore clarity by establishing guidelines for mental health professionals who wish to certify emotional support animals.

“There seems to be a lot of confusion among the public in distinguishing between service animals and emotional support animals,” Boness said. “While service animals are highly trained to assist an individual with a disability, such as blindness or physical disabilities, emotional support animals are purportedly used for relieving symptoms of or activities limited by a psychiatric disability.”

Boness has researched the growing trend of emotional support animals since 2015 alongside Jeffrey Younggren, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of New Mexico who previously worked at Mizzou. Originally from Santa Rosa, California, Boness began the clinical psychology graduate program at MU in 2013 after studying psychology at Northern Arizona University. Together, Boness and Younggren recognized that the growing trend of emotional support animals presented ethical challenges, particularly for therapists and clinical psychologists who are often asked to issue the recommendation letters.

“Clinical psychologists focus on treating their clients and supporting their needs, often developing personal rapport that may potentially lead to biased assessments,” Boness said. “On the other hand, forensic psychologists are often used to make evaluations, such as in court cases, to determine things like competency and disability. They typically do not have an intimate relationship with the patient and therefore are in a better position to be able to make an objective evaluation.”

Boness and Younggren hope a four-part approach can help establish more standardized guidelines:

  • Determining if the patient requesting an animal has a psychiatric disorder with a significant level of impairment.
  • Determining if the animal being requested can perform the disability-related task necessary to assist the patient.
  • Examining the interaction between the human and the animal to see if the level of impairment is reduced in the presence of the animal.
  • Understanding, recognizing and applying the laws that regulate emotional support animals.

Part of the confusion is due to misunderstanding of which types of animals are allowed where. While traditional service animals are permitted in restaurants and inside classrooms, emotional support animals are not. A lack of awareness about these distinctions has led to instances where restaurant owners will let in emotional support animals because they do not want an Americans with Disabilities Act violation claim filed against them; however, that law only applies to service animals. As emotional support animals are not required to be trained, they may pose a threat to others by biting or lashing out.

“We don’t want actual service animals being denied from places or discriminated against because that is against the law,” Boness said. “But we also don’t want emotional support animals in places where only service animals are allowed, which contributes to the confusion.”

To increase education and awareness, Boness and Younggren consult with and conduct webinars for landlords, airlines and mental health professionals to inform them of their rights. Last October, Boness presented a webinar to members of the Cohen Veteran’s Network, a philanthropic organization that provides accessible and integrated mental health services to veterans and their families.

“Our main goal is to educate those writing the laws, those being affected by it, such as landlords and airlines, as well as mental health professionals,” Boness said. “People are hungry for this information and there are so many stakeholders involved that want to know what is the right thing to do. That is why this research is so important, because I believe many people are well-intentioned but misinformed or confused.”

Editor's Note: For more on the story, please see: The growing trend of Emotional Support Animals