You see them often in public spaces these days: Service animals used by people with many conditions, such as visual impairment and epilepsy.
Service animals are highly trained, hardworking animals serving patients with medical needs. But many animals seen out and about are not service animals but pets or emotional support animals. A workaround for those who do not have a condition that meets the requirements for a service animal is to get emotional support animal certification. Once for people with significant psychiatric symptoms, ESA certification is often abused as a way to get around housing restrictions and by people who want to bring their animals everywhere.
A person who feels they need an animal to accompany them for social, physical, or emotional support can easily get the animal certified as an ESA, so long as a clinician is willing to sign off on it. With businesses across the state allowing a variety of animals through their doors, it is a great new freedom for those animal owners, for sure. But for those of us with allergies or asthma, the presence of furry creatures in enclosed spaces can have a real impact on our health.
I have severe allergies (I take seven medications to control symptoms), and even a brief exposure to dander can leave me with facial edema and hives that keep me up at night. This includes dogs (including supposedly hypoallergenic breeds).
I have had to leave grocery stores, pharmacies (I now get my allergy meds delivered), and the post office. My nail and hair salons have kindly agreed to keep pets out during my appointments. Because there are so many dogs on the train, I choose not to take the T.
About 10 to 20 percent of people worldwide are allergic to dogs or cats. Allergies are a major driver of asthma, which affects 26.5 million adults and children in the United States. An average of 10 Americans die each day from asthma, and it is responsible for 1.3 million emergency department visits annually. Given the prevalence of dog allergies, bringing them in public spaces means you’re likely to cause someone symptoms.
I understand that people may have legitimate reasons for wanting their pets with them: Emotional support is a main factor, while some dogs have separation anxiety. Busy folks may be incorporating appointments and errands into their daily dog walks. I’m not arguing that any of that is wrong, but society needs to consider how allowing pets into all kinds of settings can limit the ability of people who are allergic to them to do simple things like ride mass transit, shop, dine out, and much more.
Service animals are an entirely different matter. I recognize their critical importance and I have great respect for working animals that have gone through extensive training. I have erythromelalgia, a rare disease that affects the amount of time I can spend on my feet, so if I didn’t have severe allergies, a service dog to fetch items for me would be enormously helpful. I have no issues with legitimate service animals. While they may cause me to have symptoms, that’s simply a part of life.
What, then, can be done to balance the needs of those with pet allergies and asthma with the desire of so many people to bring their animals everywhere they go?
Charging fees on the T for animals might reduce how often it happens, and perhaps the revenue could go to improved cleaning or air filtration. Copenhagen, for example, charges the same fee for a large dog as that of a child’s ticket. There could also be a designated animal-free car, though that would not help those on the bus. An animal-free car would also be helpful on Amtrak, which went against the advice of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and began allowing pets back in 2016.
Certain types of stores that technically do not allow pets, but do so anyway, should start enforcing their own rules. ESAs are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but friends in the restaurant industry have stated that their employers advise them not to ask any questions when a guest claims to have a service animal, for fear of lawsuits and online backlash.
Don’t get me wrong. I think dogs are noble creatures. The joy and comfort that they bring is an enormous benefit to our species. (I enjoy them from afar, in videos and memes.) I support the creation of more off-leash dog parks and dog-friendly “third spaces” such as cafes, eateries, and bars so that dogs can be dogs, and their owners can socialize. Having more spaces meant for pets might mean fewer pets in other public spaces.
I just want for us as a state to come up with some common-sense solutions that are fair. I certainly do not want dogs confined to their homes. I do hope, though, that the needs and rights of those with allergies and asthma might be considered alongside those of pet owners.
Mei-Ling Smith is a health care worker based in Boston.