Can a Bird Be a Service Animal?

Birds can’t be service animals.

Service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was written over 30 years ago. This federal law only recognizes dogs and miniature horses as service animals.

Under federal protection, service dogs have become familiar figures in everyday society. Service dogs receive weeks of intense training to be able to provide services to disabled people.

Service dogs allow disabled people to navigate the world in ways that would be impossible for them otherwise.

They give disabled people real possibilities for belonging in the world like other people.

So, it goes without saying that service animals don’t just provide mobility and personal protection, they improve the emotional health of the people who use them.

For decades, one of the most important uses of service dogs has been to soothe people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when they are experiencing anxiety.

Birds can perform many of the same functions as service animals

In recent years, parrots have been trained to perform many of the services offered by service dogs.

They offer a different kind of emotional support.

Parrots can be trained to repeat meaningful phrases that put their owners in a different frame of mind in stressful situations.

They can be trained to help relieve stressful situations in people who have autistic spectrum disorders, bipolar disorders, and other psychiatric issues.

But you don’t have to suffer a psychiatric illness to benefit from a companion bird. A scientific study conducted in Italy proved that fact.

A nursing home in Italy gave 144 residents who did not have any kind of cognitive impairment or psychiatric issue either a bird or a plant. They were given instructions on how to care for either the bird of the plant.

At the end of three months, the residents with birds had better scores on one psychological test called the Brief Symptom Inventory and another called the LEIPAD-II-Short Version Quality of Life Test.

The residents who had been taking care of a plant did not.

More and more birds are being certified as emotional support animals

It isn’t just nursing homes in Italy that have noticed that birds can supply emotional support services.

More and more birds that can mimic human speech, especially parrots, are being certified as emotional support animals.

Having an emotional support animal doesn’t get you the right to demand special privileges that inconvenience or cause harm to other people.

The recognition of your bird, or any other animal, as your emotional support animal, is largely a courtesy afforded to you as a simple matter of treating you with respect.

You don’t have a right to bring an untrained parrot into a public space if it hasn’t learned to stay with you and not to buzz other people in the room with you.

Where your bird poops is an issue. Don’t expect someone else to pick it up for you. Make sure your bird doesn’t destroy property.

But many hotels, stores, clinics, gyms, and airlines are willing to give certified emotional support animals a chance to support their owners.

The problem has been the certification of exotic emotional support animals such as peacocks, pigs, squirrels, turtles, hamsters, and boa constrictors.

There has even been an emotional support animal certified as an emotional support animal for another emotional support animal.

Airlines, in particular, have been finding they have to draw some lines in deciding which emotional support animals they will allow to fly for free.

The rules usually are:

  • Your need for an emotional support animal must be verified by a mental health professional.
  • The airline must be notified that you will be flying with your emotional support animal at least 48 hours in advance.

Under these rules, it is possible to travel with, say, an emotional support parrot.

Many businesses will make a real effort to accommodate you and your animal, even though the law doesn’t require them to.

But that doesn’t mean you necessarily will get any kind of legally enforceable certification for your bird, or any other emotional support animal.

What can go wrong with getting a letter of certification that you need an emotional support bird?

Many mental health professionals have problems certifying emotional support animals.

The problem isn’t that pets aren’t valued as contributors to mental health.

There is good agreement in the profession of psychology that taking care of a pet, at home, reduces loneliness.

Taking care of a pet adds structure to daily life. It gives people a reason to get up every day. Pet ownership helps people meet more people, especially for the elderly.

What isn’t so clear is that emotional support animals, such as birds, act as therapy to treat a mental illness.

There is no good science that says that anyone needs an emotional support animal to go to the laundry room of their apartment building.

There are no clinical studies that find that emotional support animals help their owners deal with the checkout line at Walmart.

There is nothing that says that if you are afraid of flying your emotional support anaconda will take that fear away.

As a result, mental health practitioners are generally hesitant to put their names on letters of certification for emotional support animals, even reasonable emotional support animals, like birds.

But even if your therapist agrees, there are other issues to consider.

Giving you a letter for a support animal is an ethical problem for psychologists

A mental health professional isn’t going to prescribe an emotional support bird, or any other emotional support animal, as a treatment for a psychological disturbance.

There just isn’t the right kind of evidence that emotional support animals are helpful for your therapist to do that.

It’s possible, however, that you can find a therapist who realizes that you need emotional support in public places — everyone has the right to an emotional support animal in their own home — and is inclined to support your getting a certification.

Then there’s another problem.

There are many kinds of certifications that don’t pose a problem for psychologists.

They don’t have any problem with letters, if the facts support them, that you have attended a certain number of therapy sessions.

They may certify that you have resolved the problem for which you sought treatment. Or they may certify that you are not a danger to yourself or others.

But they can’t certify that they did psychological testing or counseling sessions that confirm your need for an emotional support animal.

The profession of psychology doesn’t have standards for that.

Your therapist may agree that you need an emotional support animal, but make the judgment that their license to practice clinical psychology doesn’t cover it.

They may conclude that in your state, the person who can write a lawful certification letter for an emotional support animal is an occupational therapist.

Getting certification for an emotional support animal includes an examination of the animal

Part of the process of getting a letter of certification for an emotional support animal requires examination of your animal.

If a bird doesn’t stay with you in public, or a dog is more frightened of strangers and strange places than you are, a therapist cannot certify that you need it for emotional support.

And the simple fact is, some animals make great pets but aren’t good emotional support animals.

If your support animal is so scared, overwhelmed, and aggressive that it behaves in an uncharacteristic, attacking manner.

It makes the situation worse. The purpose of emotional support animals is to provide a steady presence for the people they serve.

When a disabled person sees their beloved pet suffer attacks or attack others, then they don’t get the benefit of emotional support.

They also have to manage angry responses from other people. There is no room for blaming people for an animal’s inappropriate behavior.

A bird or another animal that is loving and well-behaved at home may not be suited for taking out in public.

Mental health practitioners that certify emotional support animals take context into consideration.

They look for signs of how the animal behaves under stress. They look to see how the animal behaves in chaotic environments, like flying on an airplane.

Some birds, and some other animals, will be able to serve as emotional support animals in some environments but not in others.

Keeping your emotional support animal out of situations it can’t handle is good for the animal, good for their client, and good for the people around them.

Certifying an emotional support animal requires considering how you interact with them

Another distinction therapists will make in certifying an emotional support animal is whether you need them or you just enjoy being with them.

Therapists will try to find out if you are different around your animal. They will try to find out if your animal is different around you.

They will consider which aspects of your disability are affected by the animal. They will consider how your interaction with your animal affects those aspects of your disability.

The therapist may use a standardized test like the GAD-7 for generalized anxiety before and after a session with your support animal.

They will attempt to gather objective, measurable data that confirm the animal helps, and how the animal helps you.

Getting a certification for an emotional support animal becomes part of your medical record

Psychotherapy and occupational therapy become part of your medical record. That’s not a bad thing.

Many reasonable people will agree that people who get the mental health help they need shows character, persistence, and an affirmative action toward life.

It’s unlawful to discriminate against people who have received help for their mental health in many situations.

But it’s not unlawful to discriminate against people who have received help for their mental health in every situation:

  • People seeking licenses to own and carry guns may be asked about treatment by psychologists or psychiatrists in most states.
  • People seeking to run license day care centers may have to explain their need for an emotional support animal.
  • People who need security clearances for their work may be denied if they have a history of using emotional support animals.
  • Failing to report an emotional support animal on certain kinds of insurance applications may nullify coverage later.
  • Documentation of a need for an emotional support animal can be considered in child custody cases.
  • Having an emotional support animal can make getting disability or life insurance more expensive or impossible.

The rules on determining the need for an emotional support animal, in AAPL (American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law) guidelines for Forensic Evaluation and Psychiatric Disability, also require the psychologist to consider malingering, or “faking it.” As many as 30% of applicants for certifications for emotional support animals are found not to have been completely truthful in their statements to their doctors.

But can’t I just get an emotional support animal certificate off the Internet?

Legally enforceable certifications of an emotional support animal aren’t easy to get.

Not every mental health professional knows the laws about emotional support animals. Those that do will insist on a careful study of you and your animal separately and together.

In the United States, you don’t have an automatic right to an emotional support animal.

The Americans with Disabilities Act covers service animals and psychiatric service animals, but not emotional service animals.

The Fair Housing Act protects your right to have pets. The Air Carrier Access Act gives you rights for air travel, but you must be diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having a psychiatric disability described in a book called the DSM-5.

You don’t have a right to an emotional support animal unless you accept a label of being disabled.

So, when a company says they can give you a letter for your emotional support animal over the Internet in minutes, they are running a scam.

They can’t issue such a letter. They are breaking multiple state and federal laws.

The only way to get a legitimate emotional support animal certificate is being examined by a licensed mental health professional in person.

All of this said, we encourage you to adopt pets you love. Let them love you back. But don’t put them in situations for which they aren’t trained.

Get a trained, dependable, licensed, and legal psychiatric service animal and keep the birds you love safe at home.

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