Ohio cracks down on fraudulent behaviors surrounding emotional support animals

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — First the friendly skies and now Ohio is cracking down on emotional support animals or ESAs.

“Very much it’s preventing fraud,” said Aviva Vincent, PhD, LMSW. “Other states don’t have accountability. We are modeling this as the standard.”

In recent years there’s been a surge in people claiming their pets are ESAs and everything from a peacock to pigs and even a kangaroo have been seen on airplanes.

Numerous complaints and some passengers being attacked lead to a ruling by the U.S. Department of Transportation in December, that ESAs are no longer considered service animals.

Actual service animals are “trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.”

“People who are genuinely in need can get a service animal and there are steps for that,” said Dr. Vincent, “ESAs are not trained, they’re just pets.

However, pets with a purpose that Ohio is now clearly defining to crack down on fraudulent behavior according to Ohio’s Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board or CSWMFT.

“We know that fraudulence exists, we know it exists quite a bit,” said Dr. Vincent, who specializes in the human-animal bond, and veterinary social work.  She is also co-owner of Healing Paws LLC, and works at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center in Chagrin Falls.

“So with the support of the Ohio licensing board we developed best practices and guidelines,” said Dr. Vincent.

She says ESAs are important and can help a number of mental health conditions.  For example they can also provide a much needed sense of peace and security domestic violence and abuse survivors.

However, unlike service animals, ESAs are not legally protected to go out into public spaces or businesses.

She says ESAs are meant to provide “emotional support” or be a sort of “therapy assistant or aid” for people struggling with a variety of issues, but it’s only for housing.

“So that you don’t have to pay a pet deposit or any associated fees and they (landlords) can not decline you housing for having that pet,” said Dr. Vincent.

In order to get a pet designated as an ESA, a person must have an ESA letter from a licensed therapist, which they must present to their landlord.

Just like the airlines, Dr. Vincent says there is a spike in people trying to get the letters just to avoid apartment pet fees.

“I have had an uptick in request for letters, my colleagues as well,” said Dr. Vincent.

Additionally, there are a number of websites claiming they can quickly provide ESA letters to those in need.

To clear up any confusion, Ohio’s not only created the guidelines, but all practitioners have undergone training and education to support the guidelines. 

“It’s accountability of our practice,” said Dr. Vincent, “And as a practitioner my license is on the line for that.”

For starters, only ESA letters written by an Ohio licensed practitioner are legal and valid.

The mental health professional must have met with patient/client face to face and have been treating them for a minimum of six months.

“The letter will have the name of the provider, their license number, mental health diagnosis and the symptomatology that ESA is alleviating,” said Dr. Vincent.

A Northeast Ohio woman named Rebecca got her dog Zuko to help with debilitating anxiety, which began soon after moving to Cleveland from another state.

“I moved here sight unseen, didn’t know anyone, literally turning my entire world turned upside down, new school, new work and new environment,” said Rebecca.

After two years working with a mental health professional, she decided to get an ESA. She says it was a very big decision.

“I actually had a lot of anxiety about getting a dog,” said Rebecca. “But when I saw him it was love at first sight.”

Zuko has not only helped increase Rebecca’s confidence, but decreased her anxiety.

Although the American Veterinary Association defines an ESA as any animal, Dr. Vincent says they are generally considered domesticated animals like dogs and cats.

Dr. Vincent also advises against anyone offering official looking harnesses and registries.

She says even trained service animals are not required to wear a special harness and there is no official national government-sanctioned registry.

“If we were to record every person, what we are doing is creating a database of individuals who have disabilities, that is wrong ethically morally medically,” said Dr. Vincent, “There is no central registry.”

She recommends people who need more support than an ESA can legally offer to look into getting an actual trained service animal.

Dr. Vincent and those who truly require an ESA hope the crackdown will stop any fraudulent claims, which they say is not only ethically wrong but extremely hurtful. 

“People circumventing the system feels like they’re circumventing the validity of my mental health,” said Rebecca.

To read Ohio’s entire ESA guidance, click here.

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