The Benefits of Emotional Support Animals for the Disabled

May is Mental Health Awareness month and this year the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected the mental health of many people around the world. Particularly for those who live alone, a shelter in place order can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.  Even the CDC has provided guidelines to cope with stress during the pandemic. Their “Be Kind to Your Mind” tips advise people to make time to sleep and exercise; take breaks from COVID-19 content; reach out and stay connected; and seek help if overwhelmed or unsafe. For many people, pets and assistance animals are a meaningful source of comfort. Many already experience the positive impact their pets have on their emotional well-being. Research has shown that emotional support animals can provide a significant therapeutic benefit to people living with disabilities, including many mental health conditions. Over the past decade or so, the law has started to catch up with what pet owners and proponents of pet therapy have known for centuries. Federal law provides that people with disabilities have the right to seek accommodation for an emotional support animal in otherwise pet-restricted housing.

History of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy has been around for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks documented the use of horse-assisted therapy in 600 BC to raise the spirits of the incurably ill. 17th century texts note that riding horseback is beneficial for neurological and emotional problems. In 1860, Florence Nightingale recommended small companion animals (birds) as an adjunct to healing, especially for the chronically ill. In 1867, a town in Germany integrated animals (birds, cats, dogs, and horses) into a community for the disabled. After World War II, comprehensive rehabilitation programs for wounded and disabled veterans have included working with farm animals and caring for dogs.

Since then, there has been increasing recognition of the therapeutic benefits of emotional support animals for people living with disabilities, including mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and PTSD.  Emotional support animals can provide a sense of safety and have a calming effect. Spending time with a trusted animal can increase endorphin levels released into the body and decrease levels of cortisol, the hormone that controls stress. It can result in reduction in depression for elderly people with dementia. Having an emotional support animal in your home can alleviate the emotional effects of your disability on an ongoing basis, without having to wait to attend a pet therapy session.

Law Recognizes Positive Impact of Emotional Support Animals for People With Disabilities

The mental health benefit of comfort pets has been acknowledged in court decisions.  One federal judge noted that “emotional support animals do not need training to ameliorate the effects of a person’s mental and emotional disabilities. Emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”

In 1988, the Fair Housing Act was enacted. The FHA prohibits discrimination against disabled residents and requires housing providers to provide reasonable accommodation in rules, policies, practices, or services when requested.  If you live in pet-restricted housing, you may be able to seek accommodation under the FHA for an emotional support animal. Importantly, earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released guidance on the process of requesting an accommodation under the FHA for an emotional support animal.

How a Florida Condo Attorney Can Help

If you need assistance seeking accommodation for an emotional support animal in pet-restricted housing, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909.  We help you with the accommodation request from start to finish to make sure it gets done correctly and that there is written documentation of the approval so you are protected in case the Board or Management changes.  We also make sure to protect your privacy with regard to your confidential medical information.

We serve the legal needs of individual condominium owners, home owners and cooperative owners in resolving disputes with their associations throughout Florida, including Broward, Dade and Palm Beach Counties, as well as Miami, Naples, Brickell, Hollywood, Davie, Pembroke Pines, Hallandale, Sunny Isles, Aventura, North Miami, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach.  We never represent the associations or their boards so we always know who we are fighting for.

Please note that free case evaluation is by telephone and does not include legal advice.  Office consults with legal advice are available on a flat fee basis.

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