Emotional-Support Animals and Air Travel

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Emotional-Support Animals and Air Travel

There has been much written and reported in the past few months about airplane travel that includes emotional-support or companion animals. So much, that domestic airlines are having a difficult time determining which animals they must allow in the cabin on flights within the United States and which animals they can reject. Most airlines have revisited their animal policies to both meet the demands of government regulations and over-all comfort for their passengers. This has not been an easy task as more and more people are attempting to take their pets with them on commercial flights as they move about the country. There have been incidents of people with pigs, monkeys, ducks, snakes, turkeys, ferrets, and spiders claiming those critters were emotional-support animals. And, in fact, they may bring relaxation and comfort to those travelers who make the attempt to get them on the planes. There has been considerable research done that proves animals which have bonded with their owner can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, soothe anxiety, and relax these people. However, in recent weeks according to a New York Times article, a lady attempted to board a United Airlines flight with a live, adult peacock in tow. The airlines made the decision to reject the peacock and a social-media discussion went viral, both for and against the rejection of the peacock. People must be responsible pet owners and accept the fact that all people cannot or do not want to be up close and friendly with these animals, including your dog or cat. Many people have an allergy to pets of any kind. It is not unusual for young children to harbor severe fear of dogs and cats, primarily because they have been told since their toddler days not to attempt to pet or get too close to dogs or cats that they encounter, both wild and on a leash. Those fears must be respected.

The Air Carriers Act of 1986 stipulates that air carriers must allow animals that are trained to provide emotional support be allowed in the cabin with their owners. The law mandates that physically disabled people could travel with service animals. This would include seeing eye dogs, dogs that were trained to protect the hearing impaired to keep them out of harm’s way, and other physically handicapped people who depend on their trained dog to retrieve items that may have been out of reach. It also applied to nonphysical disabilities, such as, autism in children, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for military or former military personnel after returning from war zones, and people who were being treated for a wide variety of mental conditions from dementia to depression. Many studies have proven service dogs for people afflicted with these conditions to be of immense benefit. This is all good and has been working very well for decades in air travel. However, recently, there has been a move among people who have found they can game the system. Mainly, through social-media, word has circulated that one can include their dog or cat and, in some cases, other animals or birds or reptiles or spiders without placing that critter in a crate or carrier of some type and without paying a fee that typically costs about $125 depending on the airline and the specific flight. Most airlines will limit access to no more than five or six animals in the passenger cabin on any flight. It has become common knowledge on the internet that one can purchase a brightly colored jacket for your dog that signifies your dog as an emotional-support animal. In the past, the airlines would take these dogs as presented without requiring extensive proof that the dogs were trained emotion-support dogs. Most airlines are tightening those guidelines to require a written affidavit from a doctor that a person needs an emotion-support animal for travel. Trained support dogs do not bark or growl at people passing by, and all trained support dogs are housetrained to properly attend to their biological needs. Airports have recently installed toilet areas within the airport for these dogs to visit before boarding a flight.

As stated earlier, most airlines either have or are in the process of updating their guidelines on animal travel including service dogs and emotional-support animals. The increased frequency of animal travel and those who would stretch the existing rules will have to re-consider whether it is worth the effort to take their animals along on a flight. Airlines must comply with the Air Carriers Act thus allowing trained service dogs to travel in the cabin with their owners, making standardized rules for emotional-support animals and all other pets that meet the requirements for in-cabin air travel. Each airline, both domestic and foreign, have their own rules with which one must comply. Also, international travel or travel within the United States with connecting flights on separate airplanes or airlines must be considered before the date of travel. Many airlines require a 48-hour window for confirming the itinerary for animal flight, regardless of the type of animal under consideration. It is important to make these reservations early and confirm that you and your pet will be allowed space on a specific flight. There are dogs and cats that cannot withstand the rigors of air travel due to their personality, temperament, condition of health or physical characteristics. For instance, certain brachycephalic or short nosed breeds may have difficulty in breathing at the altitudes commercial airliners travel today. For this reason, some airlines will prohibit air travel by certain breeds of dogs and cats. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), it is not a good idea to give dogs tranquillizers prior to air travel as it may cause breathing issues in the rarified air. Most airlines will require that the pet be vaccinated for rabies and other required vaccinations and have a current certificate of health issued by a USDA-approved veterinarian. Pets should wear a name tag bearing the owner’s complete contact information and an imbedded microchip inserted for a permanent identification that brings more lost or strayed dogs and cat’s home than any other identification process. The microchip and registration with one of the national dog identification registries readily settles disputes over who rightfully owns the animal. See your veterinarian about placing a microchip under the skin of your pet.

It is not my place to be judgmental on those who choose to stretch the rules a bit to avail themselves and their pets on any commercial flight by claiming the pet to be an emotional-support animal. However, being a responsible pet owner most of my life, I would caution us all to consider the fact that airport facilities in general, airport security stations, and airplane cabins are overwhelmed with the numbers of people traveling today on almost every flight. It might be useful to take a step back and consider whether this trip for your pet, be it dog, cat, bird, or any other animal is necessary. Consider the crowds at airport gates, airport security stations, and limited space in the cabin of most airplanes, and above all, the fact that you may be taking the space of a physically handicapped person who must have their service dog or an emotionally distressed person who relies on their emotional-support animal to help them through a travel crisis. These are truly disabled travelers and may need their animal for survival. Think about being a concerned humanitarian and a responsible pet owner.

Sources of valuable information and travel resources can be found at:

American Veterinary Medical Association: http://www.avma.org

USDA/Animal Welfare: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel

Pet Travel: http://www.pettravel.com

Bruce W. Little, DVM