New Ruling Cracks Down on Emotional Support Animals on Planes

By: Alia Hoyt  | 

Japan Airlines charter flight
Japan Airlines offers dogs and their owners a special charter flight to Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan. People and pets stay together in a hotel and go sightseeing in rented cars. Richard Atrero de Guzman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In a long-awaited ruling, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced on Dec. 2, 2020, that "carriers are not required to recognize emotional support animals as service animals and may treat them as pets." The DOT also said that airline carriers could limit service animals to just dogs. This ruling came after a skyrocketing number of pets flying as service and "emotional support animals" (ESAs) — up 150 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to Delta — had prompted the airline and others to enact more stringent requirements for on-board animals.

ESAs occupy a different category from service animals who are highly trained to perform specific, potentially life-saving tasks for people living with a disability. "Emotional support animals are companion pets ("ordinary" house pets) that are recommended by an individual's mental health professional for the alleviation of symptoms of an emotional disability," emails Beth Zimmerman, founder of Pets For Patriots, an organization that matches shelter dogs and cats with veterans. "They do not have to be task-trained or have any unique training at all; their mere presence is assistive."

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ESAs don't even have to be dogs. Snakes, rats, even pigs can be used as ESAs — and passengers had brought them on-board, or at least tried to. But this new ruling says that airlines don't have to accommodate these more unusual pets, reported the Washington Post. This means that passengers will likely have to pay to bring them in the cabin. Airlines could also require that the animals be kept in carriers that can fit under the seat.

"The research on the positive impact that emotional support animals have on people who are struggling with mental illness is pretty plentiful," says psychologist Tanisha Ranger, who works mainly with veterans. "They have a calming effect, lowering stress levels in the owner. They offer companionship and help to lessen isolation. ... They offer a sense of security and protection for those who struggle with PTSD."

Ashley Jacobs, CEO of Sitting for a Cause and resident of Newport Beach, California suffers from hereditary hemochromatosis, which requires her to have regular phlebotomies. "Needles are my biggest fear in the world, so my ESA comes with me to all my phlebotomies. Having her with me keeps me from panicking during the procedure," she says of her golden retriever, Diamond.

Yet Jacobs wouldn't take Diamond with her on a plane. For one, she doesn't need her dog for traveling. Also, "while she is a very well-behaved dog ... it's hard to guarantee she wouldn't get a little antsy/anxious about the new sounds/smells/environment on a plane. She's also about 70 pounds and takes up a bit of space, so for the comfort of other passengers and to avoid giving ESAs a potentially bad rep, I figured it's best to leave her at home," she says in an email interview.

ESA Fraud

Unlike service dogs, who are allowed access pretty much everywhere by Federal law, the only legal rights ESAs had were reasonable accommodation in no-pet housing, and the right to accompany their owners in the cabin of a commercial aircraft without having to be kept in a container or to pay a pet transportation fee — typically at least $125 one way. Many passengers looking to avoid this fee had started to classify their pets as emotional support animals.

"There is a lot of fraud out there," says Ranger by email. "A cursory Google search will find you any number of websites where you can buy letters from clinicians, tags, and vests which may not be legitimate. And when untrained animals attack innocent bystanders, it further creates stigma for those who actually need service animals."

There have been such incidents on airplanes, including one in June 2017 when a 70-pound (32-kilogram) dog on board a Delta Airlines flight bit a passenger multiple times in the face, causing the passenger to be hospitalized.

"Individuals with disabilities often have additional stress as they do not know when they may encounter a non-trained ESA dog that may inflict harm on them and their trained assistance dog," adds Chris Diefenthaler, executive director of Assistance Dogs International. "The general public is also affected as they cannot determine which assistance dog team is trained or which ones are non-trained ESA dogs."

Some 23 states have laws prohibiting people from passing off their pets as service animals but they were hard to enforce due to Americans with Disabilities Act rules concerning what questions a business owner may ask about a service animal. For instance a business owner cannot ask for documentation or demonstration of a service dog's training. There's also no registry of service-trained animals.

"Unfortunately, the prevalence of ESA vest and registry scams ... desensitizes the public from understanding the impact and importance of ESAs to individuals who truly need them for therapeutic purposes," says health care attorney Erin Jackson, who has written about the hostility she encountered from airline employees and passengers when she traveled with her ESA, a terrier. "Instead of viewing the animal as a therapy tool, fellow travelers may resent other passengers who are allowed to bring their 'pet' on the plane. However, note that because ESAs don't wear identification, other travelers may not be able to distinguish between a pet and an ESA."

Airline industry groups applauded the new ruling, which goes into effect 30 days after it is published in the federal register. The ruling also allows the airlines to request paperwork on the animal's health, training and behavior. On the other hand, airlines can no longer refuse to transport a service animal strictly based on breed (a policy Delta had regarding pit bulls, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and passengers no longer need to check in physically at the airport with their service animal and can check in online.

Originally Published: Jan 30, 2018

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