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Flying Pigs Have Rights, Too

Animals that help people have law on their side

THURSDAY, May 3 (HealthScout) -- Wracked by medical problems, 72-year-old Jess Jessup considers his two Yorkshire terriers vital to improving his health. They provide companionship to ease his depression and give him motivation to go outside for walks. As Jessup says, "They keep me off my fanny."

They also may land him in court.

Jessup, who faces eviction from his West Virginia apartment because of his pets, hopes to argue before a judge that his Yorkies deserve all the rights of seeing-eye dogs.

He's also one of a growing number of Americans who are fighting to gain respect for pets who help their owners tackle mental and physical ailments.

Sometimes the pets are officially certified by a government agency or a pet training organization as "service animals." Often they're prescribed by doctors. And occasionally they make their way into the news.

  • Last October, newspapers around the world took note when a pig named Charlotte accompanied its owner on a flight from Philadelphia to Seattle. The owner, who suffers from a heart condition, said the pig was a "companion pet" that helps her relieve stress.

Charlotte, however, did not go gently into the world at 30,000 feet. She ran amok through the first-class cabin and answered a call of nature in the aisle.

A chagrined US Airways said it made a mistake by letting the pig come on board. Not so fast, said the Federal Aviation Administration, which declared that the airline acted appropriately by allowing a companion animal on the plane.

  • Near Miami, a retired minister went to court to force his condominium complex to let him keep a Pekinese named Hannah. He says the dog is his best weapon against post-cancer depression.
  • In San Diego, an organization is training dogs to provide security and emotional support for victims of violent crime. By decree of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the dogs can go virtually anywhere that people can -- including restaurants, amusement parks, airplanes and trains.

In fact, the federal law guarantees this protection for all "service animals," whether or not they're certified. The law also forbids businesses from asking an animal's owner to provide proof of certification. No national standard currently exists for training or certification.

The positive power of pet ownership

It's no secret that pets help people, especially when it comes to mental health, experts say.

"It's the connection to the pet -- the responsibility and care-taking, the presence and the touch, feel and nuzzling," says Aphrodite Clamar, a New York City psychologist who lets her two cats sit in on therapy sessions.

Even the simplest of animals can have a positive effect on stressed people, adds Irene Deitch, a psychology professor at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island.

"Every mental health center that I know of has an enormous fish tank," Deitch says. "The idea is that by just watching it, hypertension intensity and blood pressure go down."

But as pets have taken on a greater role in improving health, their owners have run into roadblocks, particularly from homeowners associations that forbid animals. In response, pet owners have turned to civil rights laws that protect the rights of disabled people to have "service animals."

But federal and state laws are not always clear on exactly what counts as a "service animal." Seeing-eye dogs seem obvious to most, but how about a fish or a hamster? And would an untrained animal fall under the regulations?

Many companion pets don't even know how to heel or sit on command, let alone follow complex instructions.

Jessup, the man facing eviction over his Yorkies, acknowledges that his two dogs don't have special training but should be considered "service animals" nonetheless.

"How can you specially train a dog to give you the incentive to get out and walk?" asks Jessup, who's fighting the homeowners association where he lives in South Charleston, W.Va.

'Not Valium with fur'

Not every pet supporter is so lenient, however.

The Delta Society, a national organization that supports therapy pets, firmly advocates training of all "service animals," says spokeswoman Lynnette Spanola.

Incidents involving untrained animals "may cloud a number of people's judgment about what a 'service animal' can do for a person, and we don't want that to happen," she says.

But even when an animal is specially trained, experts say, pet therapy has its limits.

For one thing, owning a pet may be stressful in itself.

"There are a lot of things about pets that are not soothing," says Teri Wright, a psychologist in Orange, Calif. "They're not Valium with fur."

And pet therapy should not be seen as a replacement for old-fashioned therapy with a human, says Alan Entin, past president of the division of family psychology at the American Psychological Association.

"Psychotherapy provides ways of understanding the problems that people have and contributing to alleviating the symptoms, whereas a companion animal just alleviates the symptoms," Entin says. "In the long run, and even the short run, it doesn't solve the problem."

What To Do

If you have a pet that improves your physical or mental health, the animal may be entitled to special rights. For example, your dog may be able to accompany you on airplane flights or on trips to local restaurants. To find out about laws in your state regarding "service animals," contact the attorney general's office in your state's capital city.

For more on service dogs and their rights, visit the Delta Society online. For specifics on flying with a "service animal," check out information on the Air Carrier Access Act, also provided by the Delta Society.

Whether you are ailing or not, pets -- from dogs and cats to birds and iguanas -- repeatedly have been shown to be positive additions to people's lives. For information on how to adopt a pet, visit the Humane Society online.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on pets.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jess Jessup, retired shipping department worker, South Charleston, W.Va.; Alan Entin, Ph.D., past president, Division of Family Psychology, American Psychological Association, Richmond, Va.; Teri Wright, Ph.D., psychologist, Orange, Calif.; Lynnette Spanola, spokeswoman, Delta Society, Renton, Wash.; Irene Deitch, professor of psychology, College of Staten Island, City University of New York, New York City; and Aphrodite Clamar, Ph.D., psychologist, New York City
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