Emotional Support Animals – When Will Enough Be Enough?

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Have we hit another tipping point with passenger and crew interactions?  The latest incident appears to involve emotional support animals and occurred on an American Airlines flight.

Many of you may have seen today’s story on View From The Wing about the premium class flyer who was booted from a Miami to Los Angeles flight last night.  The alleged reason was for complaining about being seated next to a large dog. According to her story, the airline chose to ask her to leave the aircraft rather than try to make a reasonable accommodation. Then as she was escorted off the aircraft, American Airlines employees supposedly applauded her removal.

I know the frequent flyer to whom this happened.  While I’m hoping more details emerge that support the story, I am familiar with her travel patterns. She is a regular premium class traveler and the type American is trying to incentivize to fly more frequently.

Last night, I told myself I would stay clear of this story due to my bias about the incident.  I am allergic to some household pets.  I have been ended up bitten by fleas on two separate occasions as a result of infested animals traveling next to me in a passenger cabin.  And I have been appalled at the rise of the fake emotional support animals on domestic airline flights.

emotional support animals

Is this a trained service dog? Or an internet-credentialed emotional support animal? With fake credentials and identification available for purchase, it can be impossible to tell fake emotional support animals or service animals apart from real ones.

Trained service animals follow commands, stay close to their owner, and typically do not engage with others.  Likewise, pets flying under the airlines official policy stay in their carrier and comply with rules to stay under the seat in front of them.  Meanwhile emotional support animals are not subject to these regulations.  They can sit on their owner’s lap, at their feet, or under the seat without being in a carrier.  There are few, if any, restrictions on type or breed.

For example, here are American’s rules for any type of service animal:

Cabin rules

  • Animal must fit on your lap, at your feet or under your seat
  • Animals must be clean, well behaved and under your control at all times
  • If the animal is too large, it will need to be checked and travel in a kennel

Seating options

  • For security reasons, service animals can’t block any aisle
  • You can’t sit in an exit row when traveling with service animals
  • If you’d like seating, contact us before your flight

Requirements

To show that an animal is a service animal, you must provide (at least one of the following):

  • Animal ID card
  • Harness or tags
  • Credible verbal assurance

American goes on to provide further guidelines for emotional support or psychiatric service animals:

To travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal in the cabin you must provide supporting documentation dated within 1 year of your scheduled flight. It must be from a licensed mental health professional or a medical doctor and state:

  • That you have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • That you need the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination
  • That the individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor, and you are under his or her professional care
  • The date and type of the mental health professional or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction where it was issued

You’ll also need to contact American Reservations at least 48 hours before your flight and submit the required documentation.

If we’re unable to validate your documentation or if you didn’t notify us at least 48 hours before your flight, the animal may need to be checked and travel in a kennel.

What’s the problem with emotional support animals?

If a service animal is legitimate, then that isn’t a problem.  That’s protected under the law in the United States and airlines need to comply.

There is no question that fake emotional support animals are easy to slip past the airlines.  I have become accustomed to hearing passengers in the TSA line traveling with their pet tell others how easy it was to go online and obtain bogus certification.  Some even have no problem flaunting their emotional support “logic” (or lies) to others on social media!

One service dog organization is focused on trying to maintain for those with legitimate needs for emotional support animals.  The organization, Service Dog Central, maintains a (growing) list of websites offering these fake credential services.  They also report on distinctions between legitimate service animals and these fake pets.  Their efforts are designed to help protect the rights of those with legitimate disabilities.  They rely on trained service animals for necessary services.

The Texas legislature currently is considering a bill that would criminalize the use of fake emotional support animals and other improperly utilized service animals.  Violators would face a misdemeanor sentence, a fine of up to $300, and 30 hours of community service for each offense.

There is no question that fake emotional support animals are out of control.  They are a problem for people, like me – or my inconvenienced acquaintance last night, with allergies.  I have no problem flying with legitimate service animals.  And I cannot judge the status of the service animals in question last night.  But it is impossible to talk about her issue without discussion of how rampant this problem has become.

What Would Jetsetter’s Homestead Do?

But back to last night.  What would I have done?  I travel with allergy medication to help with unexpected pet dander.  But I too would have asked for staff to address a dog “jumping on me”, particularly in a premium cabin with lie-flat seats.  I worry that I too would have been removed from the flight for not accepting an unreasonable outcome.

Based on the information presented so far, I think this was handled poorly.  Like the unfortunate stroller incident a couple of weeks ago, frontline staff need to be mindful of customer perceptions, even when balancing these difficult issues.


 

 

 

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last eighteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 47.5 US states. Although she averages 200 days a year on the road, she loves to return to “the homestead” in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and cocktail mixology.

More articles by Jennifer Moody »

Comments

  1. There should only be service animals for the below reasons:
    Guide animal—to guide the blind
    Hearing animal—to signal the hearing impaired
    Service animal—to do work for persons with disabilities other than blindness or deafness.

    That’s it.

    You need to bring your pet guinea pig, bird, iguana, etc for “emotional support”? Guess what, NO. If you need emotional support, you have three options:

    Fly with a buddy. (family, friend, a human being)
    Take medication
    Don’t fly and take another mode of transportation or fly in a private plane.

    Just because you want to fly with your pet and are willing to lie about it means you are a terrible person, end of story.

    • What a completely insensitive remark based on bigotry. My wife, a frequent flyer with status in multiple programs, travels with an emotional support animal because she has extreme anxiety. Even when a family member travels with her it’s not the same. The animal was trained to provide the emotional support while traveling. To put a blanket statement like this is absurd and in turn, you sir are the terrible person.

      • I wouldn’t say a terrible person, just misinformed. I am a 20 year old female with ptsd. You wouldn’t guess I have it by looking at me, I have never been to war, but I have seen things I can’t even talk about. Sometimes it is even hard for me to talk on the phone without my dog. People who need pets on planes don’t need them just for planes but everywhere else to, and to insist they take another form of transportation would infringe a pin their quality of life. Imagine not being able to visit your family without driving for 4 days straight. Or go anywhere you want simply because you are sick. It just shows that the above commenter doesn’t understand mental illness. He has never been in the head of someone who has these issues. He has never had the overwhelming sensation of near death, running for his life, etc. caused by everyday objects or events. Its debilitating, only no one can see it but the person themselves. Its not his fault for not knowing, but I sure hope he makes an effort to learn.
        (Also airlines treat cargo dogs terribly, but that is another issue)

      • “If a service animal is legitimate, then that isn’t a problem.” I totally agree. It’s clowns who don’t need them and just want to fly with their pets.

    • Good thing your opinion doesn’t matter worth the energy it took you to type that. Your old, archaic, farmer john, thought processes are going the way of the dodo. No human can offer the unconditional love, comfort, and support an animal does. Maybe you could benefit from an ESA and it could help yiu pull your head out of your ass.

    • And all you unable to accept a change of rules for allowing an ESA on a flight, you are very fortunate to be in such great health! I wonder what it is like to be a perfect human.

      • “If a service animal is legitimate, then that isn’t a problem.” I totally agree. It’s clowns who don’t need them and just want to fly with their pets.

    • The lady saying she was bit by fleas is lying because when I fly with my Shih tzu who is legal for many reasons and no i am not psychotic. I have a letter from my psychiatrist whom I have seen for years. airlines require a veterinary report proofs she is able to fly. This is an expensive process.

    • My dog lete know if my Suger is to low and to me that Is life threatening I have never flown her with her if I needed to I would by the way I need her to sit in my lap because she lets me know digging my chest I hope that wouldn’t make anyone mad

  2. I suspect there will be quite a few comments. At the end of the day, as an asthmatic I might add, people have priority over pets. Put them in the baggage hold. Can’t manage w/o yours? Don’t fly in the small silver tube we are all prisoners in until we arrive.

    Get off of my plane.

    • Another callous person. Your plane? To you, a dog might just be a dog. But to someone who had a life filled with abuse and a lifetime of pain, a dog is a major part of the healing. People who have never experienced what it’s like to be so alone and hopeless in an abusive household would never know the many years of crippling effects, and how such an animal could help build trust again and give the much needed love to grow from the past. Also, putting animals in with the baggage kills them. But you wouldn’t care about how devastating it would be to lose the one great thing that gave so much love to an unloved person, because it’s “your plane”, and not your problem.

    • I think that we have the right to fly with our emotional support animals. I think if you have asthma that the airline should make special accommodations for you and change your seat or the seat of the person with the animal. I do not want you to have an asthma attack. Dogs do not belong with baggage it’s an awful ride for the dog. I don’t believe the air is regulated in the baggage area.

  3. I’m so glad you published this post. Over the Christmas holiday my husband I were flying to Miami from Boston on American. As we got seated we watched a woman enter the plane with a Newfoundland dog … it was HUGE …but it was some sort of therapy dog. I couldn’t help but think of a passenger that could have a dog allergy as this thing was so big and fury. I can’t believe how people are taking advantage of this. I’ve never seen so many dogs on flights as I do now. Ridiculous and I hope they find a way to regulate it. ….end rant 🙂

  4. It is so disrespectful to people with actual disabilities. It is definitely time for a crackdown on fakers. They should treat this the same as disability parking plates. As a physician, when I sign the papers for a patient to get one, I am putting my license at risk if I am lying about their need for one. This will lead to fewer animals and it will make it easier to accommodate people with allergies far from the animals.

    • I don’t get what your definition of fake would be? A persons ESA does not have to be registered, just provide a note from a dr that is actually a prescription! I have an ESA cat, it is not for anyone else to determine if I need one other than my dr, you can go online and buy tags and ID or vest, there is nothing fake about it, it is letting other know your pet is needed for support, all of these websites charging a bunch of money to “register” your pet is a scam! A lot of people don’t know that you don’t have to register your pet as a ESA

  5. when I’m @ 167mph on take off or on approach and have an emergency, that unsecured animal is going to fly through the cabin and break someone’s neck or knock them out preventing their egress. and it won’t be the owner. call your congressman and complain. they make these stupid laws, airlines must comply.

  6. I am a person who regularly travels the country for work. Taking a bus/train cross country isn’t always feasible financially. Trust me when I say that I would 100% prefer to not be trapped with people judging me for needing my ESA. My psychiatrist signs for him, and he (a cat) is a very well behaved individual. I have three severe mental illnesses. I get pissed when people take advantage of the system too. But before you start making people feel like crap about it, let me tell you what happens to me when I travel without him.

    First my stomach starts to churn. I get queasy, I’m not able to hold food down and frequently have to run to the bathroom. This is worst during takeoff and landing, and on multiple occasions I’ve panicked about the possibility of vomiting in my seat.
    Next my heart rate picks up, my chest starts to hurt. This is compounded by the fact that I had a lung removed from cancer and my ribcage starts to throb during pressure changes. The chest pain is tight and sharp at the same time. Often on my left side.
    Next up my breathing. It starts to get faster. In spite of my best efforts to calm down, I’m not really getting much in the way of proper ventilation. My vision gets spotty, I start crying and then get lightheaded and regularly faint.

    Now, I could take a friend, partner, family member with me, but a. That’s not cost effective with how often I travel and b. They’re not always helpful. The best they do is pet my hair and tell me to breathe. Romulus sits in my lap and kneads me with his paws, giving me sharp but not painful pressure that allows me to focus on something physical that isn’t the anxiety. His purr is audible and at a tone that is deeply relaxing. He makes sure to focus my attention on him and not the panic. It actively gets me through the trip. I could take medication, yes, but even a high dose of benzos and anti-nausea meds sometimes doesn’t cut it. In fact it sometimes means I’m panicking and not entirely with it which is often more of a problem, not just for me but for everyone.

    People shouldn’t abuse the system, flight crews should be better able to handle it. But I hate dealing with your side-eye because you think I’m faking so that I can have my cat on the plane with me.

  7. I have 20 years of psychiatric bills to document my wife’s extreme anxiety.
    I support Emotional Support animals. However, we’d gladly pay for the dogs ticket, and avoid having to draw attention to my wife’s condition, if the dog was allowed to remain on her lap during the flight.
    Many use the ES card to maintain access to the dog, not to save money.

  8. Emotional support animals are NOT service animals. By US law airlines must allow passengers to bring service animals on board for free (for example, a seeing-eye dog). And that’s great! But the definition of a service animal is quite narrow – it must be wearing the little outfit to show it’s a service animal, only certain breeds can be service animals etc.
    Emotional support animals may be brought on board at the airline’s discretion. Some airlines allow it, others don’t. In NYC, they are not allowed in restaurants by law under any circumstance.
    I have asked to be reseated from first class to economy before, because some lady brought a fake service dog on board. Having a dog in the cabin is simply disgusting – I’ll tolerate it if there is a legitimate reason, but there clearly was not. I’d rather take the next flight, but there should also be a hotline to report the fakers and they should face some serious jail time.

    • So wrong. Service animals never need any sort of identification like a little outfit. Any dog breed can be a service animal as well as miniature horses.
      ESA’s are allowed on any flight with the correct credentials, not just some airlines. ESA’s are not mandated to be allowed in any restaurant, but service animals are by law.

  9. Emotional support animals are not service animals. Whatever your going through that you need emotional support for deal with it. Not with a pet not with drugs. A little something called grit. I had anexity issues I was medicated for it A lot. I just said no more
    I read a couple books got therapy realised it was all in your mind.

    • Your treatment is far from over.
      The voice whispering in your ear that you’re ok is not real. Trying to convince others that you are now healed is a clear sign that actually you’re trying to convince yourself.

      Please come back to the clinic.

      Love,
      Your concerned psychiatrist

  10. As another allergy sufferer, for me when it comes between someone’s emotional well being and someone else’s physical life and death (i.e. asthma, anaphylaxis, etc) there’s no contest. I also don’t understand why the person in need of support isn’t moved more than the person who has an allergy?

    Also if there was actual standards and official training for emotional support animals to behave in the same way guide animals behave, that would be a different story.

  11. I have watched flight attendants chasing a chihuahua up and down the aisle. Apparently “Snookums” had escaped from his owner. I have also seen poorly behaved pets in the terminal with vests on.
    There is barely enough room for pasengers with the ever closer seating the airlines are creating. Seeing eye dogs, yes, emotional support animals, no

    • I have an ESA dog that I take with me but unlike a lot of people I have had my dog go through the AKC Canine Good Citizen training. This requires a six week course and a 10 step test given by an authorized tester. The dog is then registered with AKC. There is no reason that training could not be adjusted for other animals. It should also be required before you are able to get the emotional support designation. You can also be considerate by chosing animals that are hypoallergenic, of which there are several breeds of dogs both small and large, as far as unrestrained animals there are hookups you can add to seatbelts and hook to your animal. It takes understanding from both sides.

  12. Stop the criminal websites​ selling fake permits. They are like flies swarming over a piece of meat. Swat them!

    • If you need emotional support to be in the enclosed space and have a potential to develop acute breakdown if that emotional support is unavailable, you have no business of being in that enclosed space. Go ahead, flame me. You have a panic attack, your properly (or improperly) trained emotional support dog attempts to intervene but fails. Then what? It’s all about personal responsibility. I have PTSD Usually controlled; but occasionally disabling. And I will not fly just because I am not sure that if an attack comes on, I (or my emotional support dog – yes I have one) would be able to fully control it.

  13. I been trying to find out about getting a service dog and don’t know. How to get a service dog i been through alot i been beat up with baseball bat and had 3 other bad brain injuries and i have pst and alot of other mental health issues and have my disability hearing on July 25 i live in Florida now but want to move back to Belton Missouri after my disability hearing is over and I don’t know what to do to get a service dog and who pays for it and how everything works with getting a service dog can you let me know what I need to do

  14. O have to travel with my emotional support dog..you may not think she’s one at 4# but she knows instantly when I start getting a anxiety attack and need my pills before it’s full blown. Or my breathing gets bad. So don’t judge what you don’t know. People are so rude today it’s sinful.

  15. My daughter has a small service animal. She is trained to alert when my daughter is having a seizure. Unfortunately because of the size of her animal, people feel free to question, make snide remarks, and even touch the dog. My daughter is so stressed about the attention that she sometimes goes out without the dog. She justifies it by saying she isn’t alone, but the dog knows they’re a team and she gets anxious without my daughter nearby. What would help the situation is if you would understand that the reason you see more dogs is because they’re being trained to do new things all the time. I kniw a man whose dog senses when his sugar drops, and the dog sets off an alarm to alert others. The dog is a 5 lb chihuahua. Stop judging. Try a little kindness.

  16. I hope that the.people who are complaining about ESA Dogs never.need one.or anyone they care about need.one. No one ever knows when something might occur that might change your entire life and the ability.to.live.without an ESA. There are people who suffer from PTSD and are unable to.function properly w/o their ESA. The people who can judge anyone.cast the first stone. People that.have real issues should not be lumped with those who want to take advantage of the system. You are not a.doctor so don’t try to diagnose or prescribe. There are no perfect people but those who actually need their animal to help them survive in the world should.never be attacked and further traumatized. You show no compassion for these people; maybe God won’t have any for you. Plus Karma will get those who are fakers and those that are cruel and haters.

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