Emotional Support Animals Test States Patience

By FOCUS, a Leonine Business

Last month, two passengers were removed from a Norwegian Airlines flight to Texas when their emotional support dogs, two French bulldogs, began to act distressed after boarding. More famously, in 2018, a woman was banned from bringing her emotional support peacock on a United Airlines flight from Newark to Los Angeles, even after offering to buy the bespeckled bird its own seat.

While stories such as these may make for light-hearted morning reads, they underscore an issue that states have begun taking seriously over the past year: the misrepresentation of emotional support animals. While the majority of emotional support animal use is legitimate, an increasing number of stories of individuals faking or abusing the privileges that come alongside having such an animal has caused legislators across the nation to take a closer look at the credentialing process and penalties for misrepresentation.

Misrepresentation of an emotional support animal is most often done to allow an animal access to an area where it might otherwise be restricted, including flights, government buildings, restaurants, and most notably in housing units. The federal Fair Housing Act requires landlords to permit individuals to keep emotional support animals in housing units where pets would otherwise be banned or be in violation of the law.

Compounding the federal requirements is the ease of obtaining fraudulent certifications for emotional support animals. These certifications can easily be purchased online with no required qualifications, making it difficult for individuals and organizations to know whether an animal is a legitimate emotional support animal or has been fraudulently credentialed. Abuse of the system, and the weak credentialing process, has been a key motivator in pushing legislators to crack down against phony support animals.

Many states already have laws on the books that prohibit support animal fraud, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington. However, many of these laws are targeted at support animals for individuals with physical disabilities and are not tailored to the relatively new phenomenon of emotional support animals.

Due to several instances of high-profile fraud, public outrage and an ineffective regulatory regime, states are now pushing for stricter rules governing emotional support animals that heavily increase fines and, in some cases, make the act of misrepresentation criminal. This year alone, at least 30 bills were considered in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Of these, 13 were enacted, while bills remain pending in at least 10 states. With emotional support animals becoming more and more common, and the 2020 legislative sessions right around the corner, this issue will no doubt have its time on the legislative floor in the upcoming year.