Flying the ‘furry’ skies? Are emotional support animals a legit way of calming human flyers or is the system being scammed?

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One flight attendant had to page for a vet because a passenger said their dog was having a breathing problem. A nurse onboard assisted and advised the owner to hold the animal tightly and talk to the “emotional support animal” because it was having an anxiety attack.

Monkey inspected by TSA
As of 2010, monkey are no longer recognized by the ADA as service animals. However, Helper Monkeys, are specially trained to help people with quadriplegia, spinal cord injuries, and mobility impairments, according to Wikipedia. By Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

We’re writing this piece as a followup to the article we published yesterday about the survey of flight attendants who want a consistent policy throughout the airline industry to define requirements while supporting passengers with disabilities and veterans.

The piece—which mentioned people flying with emotional support dogs, cats, household birds (parrot, finch, etc.), rodents (hamster, guinea pig, etc.), pigs, reptiles, and non-household birds—made us wonder about what is going on and whether all this traveling with animals is really necessary.

The skies aren’t a total free-for-all anymore. American Airlines, for example, banned flying with goats, insects, hedgehogs, ferrets, amphibians, spiders, rodents, snakes and other reptiles, as well as dogs that bite as of July 1, 2018.

JetBlue similarly banned hedgehogs, ferrets, rodents, snakes, spiders, reptiles and animals with tusks. (So leave your emotional support warthogs and elephants at home.)

On Sept. 17, Southwest followed suit, now allowing only dogs and cats as emotional support animals.

For a more extensive list of what kind of animal can fly on what airline, click here.

We were wrong!

Before we go any further, we want to make a distinction that we ourselves didn’t realize existed at first until we got called out for it on social media. To paraphrase Jerry Orbach, when we’re wrong, we say we’re wrong. (We’ve watched Dirty Dancing about 8,000 times.) And also, we figured since we didn’t know, probably others aren’t aware either and now believe it is important that the public know the difference. So, here goes:

We originally thought that emotional support animals fell under the broader category of all service animals. We didn’t realize they were two distinct things. So here are some differences and definitions to help clear it up when it comes to air travel:

Service animals

Service animals, as defined by Title II and III of the ADA, are “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button.”

These are the highly trained dogs we’ve seen over the years on buses, in airports, and in various public places who are there to do a job and they do it well, calling little attention to themselves other than being impressively intelligent.

Specific examples include Guide Dog or Seeing Eye® Dog, Hearing or Signal Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog (“trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and lessen their effects”), SSigDOG (trained to assist a person with autism), and Seizure Response Dog.

Someone traveling with a service animal can’t be denied access to transportation, forced to sit in a particular spot or pay additional fees. The customer does not have to provide advance notice that they will be traveling with a service animal.

While the ADA only considers dogs as service animals, there is a provision for specially trained miniature horses under ADA regulations about whether they can be accommodated.

And, while a monkey is shown in the lead photo for piece, monkeys are no longer considered service animals by the ADA due to health and safety issues, although they may fly as helper monkeys or ESAs if the airline allows it…

Emotional Support Animals

According to the ADA, emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA:

“While Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. These support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Even though some states have laws defining therapy animals, these animals are not limited to working with people with disabilities and therefore are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals.” 

And unlike service animals, airlines can require advanced notice that the animal will fly, along with other restrictions.

Also, some support animals do just what their name suggests. Provide a great deal of comfort for someone experiencing anxiety, depression or a phobia while traveling.

But, as the ADA implies, in general, ESAs don’t receive the same rigorous training protocol service learning animals go through.

Abusing the system? And the animals?

The flight attendant survey mentioned that some feel ESAs are just being used as an excuse for people to fly with their pets, which seems plausible in some cases.

A quick Google search shows there are all kinds of sites set up to turn your pet into a Emotional Support Animal. One sight states, “Any dog may qualify.”

Another site promises “Fast, easy, ESA letters.”

The next one says, “Registration is fast and free.” We decided to try this one out all Inside Edition-style. We registered our dog, Lilly. As soon as we filled in the main information and submitted her photo, we were offered a “kit,” for $69.95 with the following:

  • Listing In Our Database
  • Two (2) PVC IDs
  • ESA Vest/Harness
  • Paperless Certificate (Download)
  • ESA eGuidebook (Download)
  • Free Shipping

Then, Lilly would be ready to fly with us and, apparently, equipped to offer comfort on our next flight. Mind you, this is a dog who pees when someone she doesn’t know pets her.

Contrast that with dogs trained for Seeing Eye dogs, which, among many other requirements, need to pass a health examination, are often selected from specific breeds (commonly golden retrievers and German Shepards), and are desensitized to sights and sounds that it would run across in public interactions. 

Training is, indeed, rigorous, and failure rates for service dogs are 50 percent, according to

our pet dog Lilly
For just $69.96, Lilly can become an ESA.

Lilly is a good dog, but we aren’t going to bring her, or any of our dogs on an airplane anytime soon. We don’t think any of them would enjoy flying. We also think it is likely frightening and uncomfortable for many dogs and other types of animals who don’t understand the noise, being restrained for long periods of time in a small space, or the change in cabin pressure, let alone possible turbulence. Not to mention the potential for the animal to freak out in the airport and get lost. Or otherwise disappear. It has happened. Click here to read about this family whose dog was lost on a flight booked from JFK.

So, yeah, we would rather leave our pets at home with a trusty pet sitter. If we absolutely had to fly with a pet, we would do like the people did at this great article about flying with their cats and prepare well ahead of time, and, even for them, it still looked like a stressful experience.

And, with apparent ease of ESA certification thanks to all these websites providing such services, we can see the potential for abuse of the ESA system to continue with unhappy pets and unhappy passengers. We can also see why the flight attendants overwhelmingly want change, especially based on the examples of bad experiences on flights with ESAs from the article we published yesterday.

Here’s just one example from that article:

One flight attendant had to page for a vet because a passenger said their dog was having a breathing problem. A nurse onboard assisted and advised the owner to hold the animal tightly and talk to the “emotional support animal” because it was having an anxiety attack.

Although we fly fairly regularly and have never been on a plane with an emotional support animal, we don’t really want to end up on a plane next to a yippee dog or miserable or frightened or disruptive animal because someone thought it would be fun to fly with their pet.

We do want to reiterate that we know that there are some very legitimate emotional support animals being used by some people who really need them. That being said, we had to wade through eight pages of search engine results of Get your pet’s ESA certification-type results before we found a legitimate story of someone who benefits from an ESA, such as this one.

So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments! We’d love to hear about your experiences traveling with pets or next to other animals.


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