Op-Ed: Media and industry sneering at service animals must stop

Google “emotional support pig” if you haven’t already. Read the sneering and loud cries of “fakery!”, and not just from the usual tabloid sources, with the usual sarcastic scare quotes around “emotional support animal”.

At a time of year when many in the United States are traveling to be with family and give thanks, and when many worldwide are preparing for the season of good cheer, the number of people willing to pillory anyone traveling with a service animal as a fraud or faker is depressing.

And allow me to be the first to congratulate my many colleagues in the media and aviation industry on their sudden qualification as mental health experts, now counting themselves qualified to decide from afar whether a particular person-animal combination qualifies as therapeutic.

The unqualified armchair psychiatry needs to stop. So does the negative narrative about emotional support animals. For a start, disparaging emotional support animals also denigrates having a need for them. People with mental health problems are stigmatized in ways that people with physical health problems often are not.

I know several people who live with issues on the anxiety-depression mental health spectrum, whose emotional support animals are vital to their living healthy, fulfilled lives. Vital to traveling to see friends and family at an anxious time of year. Vital to being able, some days, to get out of bed. These people are not shirkers, cheats or liars. They have very real problems and it is not for anyone else to judge whether those problems are “real” or not.

I also know several people who openly claim to have wrangled a doctor’s certification in order to bring their pet on board as an emotional support animal. At least one of those people is actually keeping their not insignificant mental health diagnosis a secret from many friends and family, some of who trigger and exacerbate that condition. Being able to joke that their (small, well-behaved) dog is with them because of loose airline regulation is the difference between being able to travel and not.

Veterans are often among the groups who benefit significantly from service and emotional support animals, with 300,000 veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) according to data in a 2012 Smithsonian Magazine article. Often, veterans (and particularly combat veterans) find it difficult to accept the need for help, especially given the societal stigma against having mental health needs.

Organizations like Paws for Purple Hearts, Vets Adopt Pets, Dogs 4 Disabled Veterans and Patriot Paws do admirable work matching service members living with physical and psychological disabilities with animals, with a growing evidence base that suggests there are tangible benefits for these groups of veterans.

“Research is underway to better understand if dogs can provide a disability service for persons with PTSD. VA [Veterans Affairs dept] has started a research study to determine if there are things a dog can do for a veteran with PTSD that would qualify the animal as a Service Dog for PTSD,” says the National Center for PTSD, which is currently examining the medical science around the issue. It seems that there is a desire on the part of airlines, cabin crew and the traveling public to require some additional certification to “catch the fakers” and verify that an animal is medically necessary.

Airlines already have time-consuming processes that already restrict the ability of people with disabilities to travel. United, for example, requires 48 hours’ notice and medical certification for service animals. Traveling at short notice on United would seem to be off-limits for anyone requiring a service animal. The certification process on other US airlines (Delta, American, Southwest, JetBlue) is similar, though without an explicit time window requirement. Imagine having to delay a visit to see a sick or dying relative — already a time bound to be stressful for people requiring emotional support — because of the paperwork.

People living with mental health issues deserve understanding, empathy and whatever assistance they need while traveling, not disdain and obstructive inconvenience.