Although the end of the pandemic seems to be right around the corner, the psychological side effects are only just beginning. The stress of the unknown coupled with social isolation was the perfect recipe for a long-term mental health disaster, according to experts. Now more than ever, it’s important to prioritize mental health. 

To cope with the depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health concerns sparked by pandemic-related stressors, many individuals rely on an emotional support animal (ESA) to improve daily functioning. ESAs provide the support and comfort necessary for their owner to preserve a certain quality of life. 

While ESAs provide invaluable support for their owners, they are not considered service animals because they do not undergo professional training. This differentiation means that ESAs are not given the same treatment and rights as service animals, thereby putting individuals that rely on an ESA at an extreme disadvantage in public settings. 

ESAs deserve to be included in the same guidelines as service animals for a multitude of reasons. First, owning a service animal is an incredibly expensive process that takes years to complete. The average service dog costs between $15,000 and $30,000– not including the cost of food, veterinary care, vaccinations, toys and other necessities. This high price point makes owning a service animal an unreasonable option for many individuals. 

On the other hand, any pet can be registered as an ESA after a licensed mental health professional agrees that the presence of an animal is necessary for improving the patient’s mental health. The ESA certification itself doesn’t come without a price, but the cost of an ESA dims in comparison to the cost of a service animal. 

The exclusion of ESAs from rights given to service animals is not only discriminatory to those of lower socioeconomic status, but also dismisses the crippling effects of mental illness. Service animals are typically thought to assist those with a physical disability: blindness, epilepsy, arthritis and more. Yet, unknown to many, service animals are also used to assist individuals with mental disabilities. Permitting service animals in public spaces such as the workplace or in traveling, but excluding ESAs from the same, is a hypocritical and classist practice that places more importance on the mental health of those with higher socioeconomic status than those of lower status.

The rights of ESAs are under attack in a new rule enacted by the Department of Transportation (DOT) in January 2021. This rule gives airlines permission to deny ESAs of service animal treatment, and instead charge the passenger a pet fee. According to a survey by Vet Naturals, 74.5% of ESA owners say they will be flying with their pet less due to the new DOT regulation. 

Additionally, the most cited reason for not flying with a pet is that the airline pet fee is too expensive. The DOT’s new rule, once again, dismisses the ongoing mental health crisis and puts the mental health of lower income individuals at a particular disadvantage. 

The psychological consequences of the pandemic make mental health a more pressing issue than ever before. To promote the importance of mental health for people of all backgrounds, it is crucial that ESAs are given the same rights as service animals.