A bunny nibbles nuts from a bowl of bar snacks at a Boston restaurant.
A pig boards a plane in Hartford and promptly forgets its manners.
And somewhere in Michigan, a two-and-a-half-foot American alligator provides a woman with the sort of emotional support only a reptile can offer.
In Boston and beyond, all manner of beasts are accompanying people into places they don’t belong. Sanctioned by notes from doctors and sometimes even wearing official-looking vests, these creatures, known as emotional support animals, or comfort animals, can belong to any species that made it onto Noah’s Ark.
They are different from service animals. Typically dogs or small horses, these are trained to aid someone with a specific disability and are officially recognized by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Confusion about the law means that comfort animals of all sorts are enjoying the same rights, and tolerance, that are often extended to service animals.
Most emotional support animals are dogs and cats that quietly soothe their owners’ anxieties — for example, making flying left stressful. But the messes that occasionally result from misplaced menageries make life harder for those who rely on animals for help, advocates say.
“Rabbits are frequent. Someone tried a snake,” said Steve Clark, director of government affairs of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, who said restaurant owners routinely trade horror stories of comfort animals that create chaos in their dining rooms. “The issue itself is kind of a big problem for the industry.”
Although the Americans With Disabilities Act allows service dogs to accompany their owners nearly anywhere the public is welcome — into restaurants and shops, in taxis and movie theaters — emotional support animals have few such protections. Their protections are limited to access under the Fair Housing Act to live in rental housing where pets are otherwise banned, and allowed, according to the Air Carrier Access Act, to ride for free with passengers in the cabin of airplanes.
The only credential their owners require is a letter from a mental health professional that says the pet is part of its owner’s treatment plan. But an appointment and an insurance card are not required; letters are available for a small fee from websites offering online or phone consultations with therapists.
And, however legitimately, the animals are multiplying. A JetBlue spokeswoman said that more than 25,000 of its passengers took to the air with animals in the first 11 months of 2014, 11 percent more than all of 2013.
Most of those trips go smoothly, and the numbers that JetBlue cited include true service dogs. But comfort animals can cause a fair amount of discomfort for their fellow fliers.
Over Thanksgiving, a Connecticut woman boarded a flight with a rather large emotional support pig. Upon boarding, the agitated pig began screaming and defecating in the aisle before hog and human were asked to leave.
Horror stories such as that make it harder for people like Ann Szabla and her golden retriever, Sienna. The specially trained 3-year-old dog nudges Szabla, a 27-year-old video game developer with diabetes, when her blood sugar gets too low or too high.
“The reception we get from people in airlines and businesses is based on the experiences they’ve had before,” she said.
But while the pig who almost flew became a punchline and frequent fliers routinely gripe about emotional support animals, others point out that the role that animals can play in the treatment of mental illness is hardly hogwash.
“Animals provide comfort and stress relief for people,” said Mike Keiley, director of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’s Noble Adoption Center.
He said people occasionally tell staff at the shelter that they were encouraged by their doctors to adopt animals.
Seeing firsthand the positive effects of pets on people with emotional problems is what led Hal Eisenstein to start the website emotionalsupportanimalcenter.com.
There, pet owners can fill out a questionnaire and talk to a doctor to get their animals registered for $150.
Eisenstein said he expected to get more applicants looking to save a few bucks when flying — most airlines charge about $100 each way to bring a pet in the cabin — but instead found people dealing with a variety of conditions that are mitigated somewhat by their beloved pets.
Those who bully their way into shops and restaurants are a small minority, Eisenstein said, ruining things for those whose mental health depends in some small part on a four-legged family member.
And some restaurants and other businesses welcome the animals: Stoddard’s Fine Food and Ale, near the Common, puts out water for the dogs who turn up every once in a while and has not had a problem, said director Jamie Walsh.
Rabbits, he said, “would be a little strange here. We sell rabbit.”
Eisenstein said he does not advocate taking pets to restaurants.
“Going into a place where someone isn’t familiar with the fine details of the law with a llama, and saying ‘This is my emotional support llama,’ sort of demeans the process,” Eisenstein said, referring to a magazine writer at The New Yorker who exposed the confusion over the designation by bringing various wildlife into inappropriate places.
Eisenstein acknowledged, though, that one of his therapists had recently signed off on an emotional support alligator for a woman in Michigan.
“We originally denied her request but she wrote a rather intelligent letter making her case for consideration and assured us that her pet really provided her with therapeutic companionship,” Eisenstein said, though it was unclear how a reptile capable of chomping off a finger might be therapeutic.
Regardless, the woman got her doctor’s letter — with the condition that she would not force the 30-inch alligator on an unwilling landlord.
More typical are people who say their dog helps them deal with ongoing anxiety, such as one client of emotionalsupportanimalcenter.com who recently moved from Winchester to the West Coast with her Dachshund.
The woman, who asked that her name not be used because she was discussing her own struggle with anxiety, said she turned to the website in an effort to avoid airline fees.
Having the dog along for the ride “makes it so that I can focus on her versus my own anxiety,” she said.
“Having her there, it’s like I’m not alone.”
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.