Companion Animals Can Help Navigate the Holiday Crush

It’s the holiday season, and with that comes streets filled with shoppers, bustling airport terminals and flights filled to capacity. It also means rubbing elbows– or paws –with four-legged companions out and about with their humans. 

Have you ever wondered (or even been a bit skeptical) about the different types of companion animal designations in use? Here’s what you should know about the animals bundled up beneath those cute holiday sweaters and “Do Not Pet” vests. 

“Animal helpers” fall into three categories: Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Therapy Animals. All three offer distinct services and perform different functions. 

A service animal is any dog (and in a recent development, miniature pony) that is trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Service animals can alert individuals to impending seizures, remind them to take medication or even press elevator buttons. 

ESAs help individuals with mental or emotional disabilities, by providing companionship and affection. Therapy dogs also offer affection and comfort. But they do so in group settings, such as in nursing homes, hospices, and disaster zones. They aren’t generally eligible for the same accommodations that Service Animals and ESAs are entitled to. 

To help explain more of the differences between the three categories, the Courier consulted with Prairie Conlon, LPC. Conlon is a licensed mental health professional and an emotional support animal expert specializing in animal-assisted therapy as an alternative approach to mental health and well-being. She is the Clinical Director of CertaPet and hosts the “The Animal Effect” Podcast on Mental Health News Network. 

“Service Animals need intensive training and can only be dogs and miniature horses. The horses make fantastic seeing eye animals for the blind,” said Conlon. Pursuant to The American with Disabilities Act (ADA), Service Animals are provided with the widest possible accommodation in public places, housing and transportation. 

The rules regarding ESAs are different. 

They can only be prescribed to a patient by a licensed mental health professional, including a psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, or psychologist who has evaluated the patient’s need for an emotional support animal. That professional then issues an Emotional Support Animal letter, which affords certain legal and financial protections under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Fair Housing Act. 

Conlon noted, “ESAs can be any type of animal, but that is a little too broad in my opinion. I only work with cats, dogs and rabbits. The problem is that if you start to talk about a hedgehog, they can communicate diseases to humans. A snake may absolutely offer emotional support to someone. But, if you bring it on a plane, it’s going to freak out dozens of other passengers. And, the idea of a peacock is ridiculous,” said Conlon. 

However, she by no means discounts the value ESAs offer to patients. 

“It’s like anything else with mental health. As a therapist, I may diagnose someone with anxiety, depression or a sleep disorder. When they leave for a trip, they’re going to take their medication with them. An ESA is their prescription. They’re not going to leave it behind, especially during the holiday season when things are already stressful,” said Conlon. 

She also emphasizes that airports and airlines are tightening rules and regulations about the documentation needed to board with ESAs. So, there’s probably no need to be suspicious about all the vest-wearing animals in the security lines. 

“You can’t simply order a kit from Amazon and show up at the airport. I tell my clients they need to begin the process when they book their tickets. The airlines are requiring certifications from vets and other documentation, so it takes time,” said Conlon. 

She added, “It’s important to realize that an animal can help a person avoid anxiety in situations where they might be popping a Xanax. Sure, there might be those that try to scam the system. But, there’s a lot of empirical evidence about the value animals can provide to humans in all of life’s situations.” 


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