Pet Guide 2022: You’ve got a friend in me

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Diego. (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)

welcome to Orlando magazine’s, Annual Pet Guide 2022. Over the past few years, we’ve brought you fascinating information about high-tech products for your pets, stories of remarkable dogs that offer support to victims of crime, as well as tips and stories that warmed your heart. This year, we’re going back to basics, focusing on the physical and emotional connection we share with our special friends, as well as tips for making that love selfless. From an inside look at a local Orlando pest shelter to information about emotional support animals and essential advice, we think you’ll agree that there’s nothing more special in life than our friends at fur.


(Courtesy of DANA ZWEIBEL)

When Emilie Alfonso found Breeze at Orange County Animal Services, she learned that he had been an escape artist, frequently leaving the house for parts unknown.

After three years of escapes, her family gave up and four-year-old Breeze was left homeless.

No one will ever know what Breeze was looking for, but he found a human to love when Emilie Alfonso adopted him two years ago.

Alfonso, volunteer director of a local zoo and president of A Better Life-Pet Rescue, lives with depression. From the time she and Breeze bonded, he’s been her source of solace when depressed moods plummet.

“Breeze is a very special boy. He likes to give hugs and I struggle with depression,” says Alfonso, adding, “Whenever I have a hard time for me, he comes and sits right in front of me and waits for me to hug him.

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(Courtesy of DANA ZWEIBEL)

The Orlando resident is one of thousands across the country with a pet designated as an emotional support animal.

What does that mean? An emotional support animal, or ESA, is a companion animal that provides therapeutic comfort and companionship to an owner who suffers from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

“Breeze was approved to be an ESA last fall,” Alfonso says when she moved into an apartment with the 80-pound pit bull mix.

A primary care physician or licensed mental health professional can prescribe ESA as part of a treatment plan for various conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, panic disorder , obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety and phobias.

The patient receives a letter from the ESA with a consultation and diagnosis, essentially a prescription for a pet. The ESA letter entitles a person to certain protections under the Fair Housing Amendments Act 1988.
Specifically, it protects the right of people with disabilities to keep emotional support animals in their home, even if an owner explicitly prohibits pets.

(Courtesy of ÉMILIE ALFONSO)

The owner of an ASE cannot be refused accommodation and cannot be evicted. They can’t ban an emotional support animal if it’s a breed that is otherwise banned for being “dangerous.”

All pet charges added to the rent are prohibited. Because the animal is a medical device, the owner cannot charge the owner for its attendance.

There are two exceptions to the FHA:

  • If a landlord owns a building with four units or less and lives there.
  • If an owner of a single family home rents it out without the help of an agent.

Any discussion of an emotional support animal must include what it is not. An emotional support animal is not a service animal, such as a guide dog for the blind. No training is required. Therefore, no special accommodations need be made for an ESA beyond those granted in the Fair Housing Act.

An online assessment and consultation is the usual method. Many online businesses offer to guide customers through the process for a fee. Some, like CertaPet, connect the client with a licensed mental health professional in the Orlando area, who will grant the ESA letter.

Prairie Conlon, a licensed mental health professional and clinical director of CertaPet, warned that some online outfits seek to scam people out of their money by pretending to be an “official” ESA registry. There’s no such thing, she says, and you don’t need to “register” your pet.

All a homeowner needs is a letter from the ESA from a medical professional, Conlon says.

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