My Treatment Has Four Paws
Legal Reference | Fair Housing (Housing Discrimination)
By: Marybeth Saporita, NPLS Paralegal
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that large numbers of individuals suffer from anxiety and/or depression to the degree that it affects their ability to function on a daily basis. For an individual with a mental health disability, they often rely on some sort of treatment to be able to manage their ongoing daily tasks. This treatment can consist of therapy, medication and/or the assistance of an animal that provides emotional support, appropriately called an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). Under the Fair Housing Act, a tenant can request a reasonable accommodation to have their ESA in a building that does not allow pets.
Often, when a tenant tells a landlord of a no-pet building that their animal isn’t a pet, but an ESA, the landlord doesn’t believe them. They accuse the tenant of making something up so they can get their animal into the no-pet building. Sometimes when you try to educate the landlord about the right to an ESA under fair housing laws, they simply state that they don’t believe the tenant needs an ESA and that the tenant hasn’t given them proof that the animal can provide emotional support. These landlords would be very surprised to find out that scientific studies show that animals actually do help manage medical conditions, including stress-related illnesses often associated with mental health conditions.
In the early 1980s, the first scientific evidence to support the importance of a human-animal bond was published. Psychologist Alan Beck and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher studied the effects of an individual petting a dog with which the individual was familiar. The results measured actual physical reactions and showed a reduction in stress level, including lowered blood pressure, slowed heart rate and relaxation of muscles. These results were confirmed in a recent study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine which also showed blood chemistry changes of decreased amounts of stress-related hormones. Both studies showed that the benefits occurred after 5-24 minutes of petting the dog, which is a quicker response than any anxiety reducing medication (see Psychology Today, Stanley Cohen, M.D., PhD., F.R.S.C., June 7, 2009 available at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/200906/the-health-and-...).
More recently, researchers came together to share findings of three separate studies that show the benefits of human-animal interaction. The studies were conducted by Dr. Sandra McCune, Scientific Leader of Human-Animal Interaction at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, which conducts research for Mars Petcare. The first study showed improved mental health and physical function for elderly individuals with dementia who had organized interaction with dogs. Not only did the participants’ fine motor skills improve, but they were found to have decreased depression scores with both results persisting over time (CBS Chicago, Researchers Present Findings In Chicago on Benefits of Pets, August 4, 2013, available at http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2013/08/04/researchers-present-findings-in-c...).
The second study focused on whether there are benefits of dog ownership in relation to social interaction. The results showed that dog owners have more friends with meaningful relationships and integrate into communities more easily (Id.). In the third study, researchers studied a group of young people interacting with horses. They found that the interactions had a positive effect on the overall social and personal abilities of the participants, including the areas of social competence, personal responsibility and relationship skills (Id.).
In addition to the results of the studies, Dr. McCune notes other therapeutic effects of pet ownership such as fewer doctor visits and a decrease or stoppage of medication. In fact, Dr. McCune anticipates a time will come when doctors will write prescriptions for pets instead of pills (Id.).
In the case of ESAs, the time for prescriptions for “pets” has come. In fact, for tenants with stress-related and/or mental health conditions, it looks like an ESA is just what the doctor ordered!
Last Updated December 22, 2014