LACONIA — When 4th Circuit Court Judge Jim Carroll ruled last week that a Laconia man would not be evicted from his no-pets-allowed apartment because his niece had a "comfort" cat, he may have touched on a growing controversy in the United States.
Carroll ruled that even though the apartment owners have a no-pets policy, a letter signed by a licensed clinical mental health counselor of Genesis Behavioral Health said she recommended a cat for her patient to reduce anxiety and depression and he ruled against eviction.
Genesis Clinical Operations Officer Celia Gibbs said Wednesday that her agency "is sometimes asked if (it) will write a letter and if we feel that it's appropriate, we will."
"It's mainly cats," said Gibbs who added that she thinks the number of letters Genesis has written is less than an handful.
"If a client comes to us and says this is a service animal, we respect this," she said.
Western Carolina University Professor of Psychology and author Hal Herzog, Ph.D said yesterday that the above case appears to be legitimate use of a emotional service animal but added that the scientific evidence supporting their use and effectiveness is inconsistent and unproven.
"The clinical trial data is not nearly as strong as some in the media suggest," he said. "If we make medical claims other than the placebo effect, we should hold them to the same scrutiny as medication."
He said there are no real national certifications and the ones that appear on-line are frauds, many of which he has reported as such to the federal government.
Herzog also said the proliferation of the "fake" service animal industry, primarily over the Internet, is angering those who specialize in the field — especially those who train dogs for legitimate fields as diverse as seeing-eye and hearing dogs to the blind and deaf to those who train them for high-level police and national security purposes.
"What the fakes are doing is not a legitimate field and they're furious," he said.
Technically, and according to attorney James J. MacDonald, who was writing for Working Like a Dog which is a Website for support of people with service animals, the U.S. Department of Justice rules on assistance dogs, which went into effect on March 15, 2011, say only dogs (and miniature horses in some cases) can qualify as "service" animals.
"'Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained' will not qualify," he wrote.
In addition, he said the dog must be specifically trained to work or perform a task for the benefit of an individual with a disability. McDonald also stated that the dog must be trained to assist the person with their disability or illness.
In New Hampshire, the Legislature passed a law (RSA 167-D:8) that became effective at the beginning of this year that said that a person who fits an animal with false equipment or tags or who represents an animal as a service animal is unlawful. The statute also strengthens the law that prohibits interfering with a legitimate service animal.
According to the Disability Rights Center, people with emotional disabilities have a right to have an animal in housing as long as the housing unit is owner-occupied and no more than three units, a written request is given to the landlord to waive the no-pets policy, and a letter from a medical professional supports the need for a service animal.
In April, the ABC News magazine 20/20 aired a story about how many people use these services as a way to be able to avoid paying extra fees to airlines to be able to travel with their dogs and to be able to bring them into restaurants and shops.
A rules change in 1988 from the U.S. Department of Transportation changed the rules surrounding service animal, paving the way for a more adaptive policy that some have found a way to take advantage of.
Canine Companions for — an agency that provides information and support to people who have service animals — has started a campaign to rally people against what it calls "service dog fraud". "When untrained pets behave badly, the people who actually need assistance dogs wind up suffering the most," reads its home page of the Internet. It asks people to pledge to stop abusing service animal registry sites, saying it diminishes the people who truly need their service dogs to perform actions that most people take for granted.
As to how effective owning a pet can be to assuage loneliness, depression and anxiety, Herzog said sometimes pets can create the opposite effect.
He said he gave a speech recently and asked the people in the room who were afraid or who didn't like a pet that belonged to a friend or a family member to raise their hands. "About one-third of them raised their hands," he said.
Herzog said he can think of one couple where conflict over their dogs led them to divorce and another case where a woman who relocated to a new city bought a dog so she wouldn't be lonely but never bonded with it.
He said people want to believe that pets make them less lonely, less anxious or less depressed but the data isn't there.
"The actual evidence doesn't match the hype," he said.
In closing, Herzog said that dogs and cats can ruin or enhance a person's life and people should take all of those factors into consideration before considering one.
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