Kelsey Reiner comes home from law school every day exhausted. Once she opens the front door, her chocolate lab, Otis, greets her barking and with his tail wagging.
Otis is Reiner’s emotional support animal. Instead of taking anxiety medication, Reiner said Otis is her calming aid.
An emotional support animal provides assistance, usually in the form of comfort, to people with a disability.
“Otis has helped with me with my anxiety and breakdowns during law school so much,” Reiner said. “EMA animals are so important because they are there to love you through any emotional crises. Otis helps me cope with stress so much more than I could have ever imagined.”
Anxiety affects 3.1 percent of the U.S. population, yet fewer than half of those people receive treatment, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety. Depression affects 6.7 percent of American adults and is the leading cause of disability in the United States among people age 15-44.
Not only is Otis great for anxiety and depression relief, but also he’s a great companion, Reiner said.
“It means that I’m never alone when I’m feeling anxious about something,” she said. “Even though Otis doesn’t really understand why I’m stressed out, he understands that I am stressed and knows when to pour on the love.”
South Florida psychiatrist David Gross has evaluated patients to see if they are a fit for an emotional support animal.
“In order for a patient to get an emotional support animal, it requires a psychiatric official diagnosis and a subsequent practical need,” Gross said.
On top of receiving a diagnosis, a patient may register her or his animal on esaregistration.org or several other registration sites.
Some emotional support animals have made national headlines recently, sparking concern that some people may be abusing the system. In January, a female traveler was stopped from taking a peacock that she said served as her emotional support animal onto a United Airlines flight.
In March, Delta Air Lines changed its guidelines for traveling with emotional support animals and service animals. The airline said it saw an 84 percent increase in reported animal incidents since 2016, including urination and biting.
Delta spokeswoman Ashton Kang declined to comment on the policy, referring to information on the airline’s website.
Under the new rules, passengers with an emotional support animal must provide the airline with the animal’s health history, documentation from a licensed mental health professional, and a confirmation of the animal’s training.
Gross said he believes there is more abuse of the emotional support animal system as people.
Being someone that requires an emotional support animal, Reiner said she doesn’t have an issue with people taking “fake” emotional support animals on flights.
“The fake EMA animals on flights doesn’t really bother me because I honestly think society needs to change they way it views animals, or at least dogs and cats,” Reiner said. “People with pets have a very hard time traveling and I’ve seen horrible things that happen to dogs that do fly and aren’t EMA.”
Reiner said Otis is very aware of his owners’ anxiety and he’ll always comfort her in her time of need.
“If he sees me crying or panicking, he automatically comes up to me to lick my face and give me a hug,” Reiner said. “It’s hard to stay anxious when he’s there keeping me grounded. A dog’s unconditional love is the best medicine for so many emotional problems.
“It might not be the cure but it’s an amazing supplement to my anxiety medicine. I don’t know where I’d be without Otis.”