A bill just introduced in the Michigan House is aimed at cracking down on the prescription of fake emotional support animals.
House Bill 4910, known as the "misrepresentation of emotional support animals act," would make it illegal for a person to misrepresent themselves as a person with a disability or as someone with an emotional support animal. According to the bill, a housing provider "may request reliable documentation" from that individual's health care provider to confirm the person's need for an emotional support animal.
The bill would also mandate that the prescribing health care provider be licensed in the state of Michigan or in the state the individual lived during the previous 180 days. Additionally, the bill would require the doctor to have a physical office space and have treated the patient for at least six months.
The bill specifically addresses emotional support animals and not service animals. According to the ADA Network, "service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability." They also note that while "emotional support animals or comfort animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA."
Registering your animal as a service animal in Michigan requires that "the service provided by the animal is not emotional support, companionship, therapy for others, and/or crime deterrence," according to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
According to The Guardian, currently all you need to register your pet as an "emotional support animal" is a therapist's letter "asserting the animal contributes to your psychological well being." If you're unable to attain this letter from a therapist or don't have one, there are for-profit websites that will connect you with a clinician over the phone or via web survey for a "disability appraisal." Through those same websites, one is also able to to purchase support vests and tags.
One site, ESAD International, offers Michigan residents housing letters for $189, or airline letters for $239. Following the announcement of the bill, ESAD wrote a blog post in support of Michigan's efforts, but also took issue with the state's six-month clinical relationship requirement.
“Therapeutically, if we take an ESA from a person for six months or two months or whatever, we are increasing the risk of decompensation of the client’s mental health, which puts them at risk for more drastic coping, such as suicidal ideation, intent, plan, etc. or increase in alcohol/drug use, overdose, etc.,” they wrote. “For some people, the ESA is the main reason for getting up in the morning. Taking this away puts them at risk for further deterioration where they may become a greater risk of harm to self or others.”
If found in violation of this act, an individual or health care provider could face the following:
- Imprisonment up to 90 days
- A fine up to $500
- Community service up to 30 days.
Housing providers would also be able to terminate a lease if the occupent falsely respresents that an animal is an emotional support animal.
A hotline will be set up through the Department of Civil Rights so that those who suspect a person or healthcare provider of falsely reporting one's need for an emotional support animal can securely report those suspicions.
The Michigan Senate previously introduced a similar bill in 2017.