From Reptiles To Therapy Chickens, How Emotional Support Animals Offer Relief

Jun 16, 2016

U.S. Army Maj. Alisa Wilma, command veterinarian of the area support group in Kuwait, shows off Luka, a Red Cross volunteer and member of the human-animal bond program on loan to deployed troops in 2011.
Credit Staff Sgt. Regina Machine / U.S. Army

Earlier this week in Westmoreland County, the Hempfield Township’s zoning hearing board decided to allow a teenage girl to keep her four pet therapy chickens despite initial neighbor complaints.

Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh Executive Director Jay Dworin said illegal discrimination against emotional support animals is not uncommon in Pittsburgh.

Emotional support animals, or ESAs, are commonly used as companions for people with anxiety, depression or post traumatic stress disorder. ESAs can range from reptiles to rodents. While these animals aren’t allowed to go as many places as service animals, they are permitted on airplanes, and thanks to the Fair Housing Act, they're also exempt from no-pet housing rules.

Dworin said many landlords in the city aren’t complying with those federal laws.

“They have a hard time differentiating between a support animal and a pet," said Dworin. "The difficulty in that differentiation comes from the landlords’ inability to understand the mental health disability.”

Dworin said that’s because unlike service animals such as seeing eye dogs, emotional support animals aren’t assisting with an obvious physical disability, and that there’s still a big stigma against mental disabilities.

“There’s a greater understanding by the mental health community of the role of emotional support animals and of their rights of emotional support animals," Dw0rin said. "So as a result, you’re certainly seeing an increase in the number of the people asking for them.”

Dworin said his organization has handled a number of cases involving veterans, who often use support animals to help manage their PTSD.