Traveling With Pets

What is an ESA, Emotional Support Animal:

Animals are often the best source of comfort, security, companionship, and love when suffering from a mental or emotional disability. These are called emotional support animals and they are a groundbreaking way to alleviating debilitating symptoms of mental and emotional disabilities.

Emotional support animals do not require any kind of specialized training. In fact, very little training is required at all, provided that the animal in question is reasonably well behaved by normal standards, such as being fully house-broken and does not have bad habits that would disturb neighbors, such as frequent or lengthy episodes of barking. 

In order to qualify for an emotional support animal, you need an official letter from a certified mental health professional, such as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Psychologist, or Psychiatrist. 

An estimate of 61.5 million Americans (or 1 in 4) suffer from a mental or emotional disability. Emotional Support Animals are there for you and help alleviate symptoms through companionship and affection.

What’s a Service Animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act limits the definition of a service animal to one that is trained to perform “work or tasks” in the aid of a disabled person. So, while a dog that is trained to calm a person suffering an anxiety attack due to post-traumatic stress disorder is considered a service dog, a dog whose mere presence calms a person is not. The act states, “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” 

That same law makes no requirements or provisions for any registration, licensing, or documentation of service animals. It also prohibits businesses or individuals from asking a disabled person for proof that their dog is a service animal. In fact, the ADA permits only two questions to be asked of people with service animals: Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? What task is the dog trained to perform? That’s it. No inquiry can be made about the nature of the disability and no proof can be requested, nor are there any licenses or documents to prove a dog is a service animal. 

Emotional support animals (let’s just use that as a catchall for any dog that provides comfort but does not perform a specific task) are specifically excluded by the ADA, and access for them is not provided by that law. Businesses and similar entities are left to define their own policies. Amtrak, for instance, does not consider ESAs to be service animals and does not permit them to ride in passenger areas on its trains.

Because ESAs provide benefit by their mere presence, there’s no burden of training for them like there is for a service dog. The presence of untrained, or poorly trained dogs in public places, and on crowded airplanes can lead to significant problems. In June, an ESA aboard an airplane attacked the human seated next to it, resulting in severe injury. 

So where's the confusion come from, and why are there so many pets on airplanes these days? The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) does recognize ESAs and mandates that they be allowed on planes. It also goes further to place a burden of proof on owners of both service animals and ESAs. 

Airline Requirements for Traveling with an Emotional Support Dog

Traveling with your emotional support animal without any additional fee or costs is allowed by airline carriers if you have an ESA letter. However, you have to comply with some requirements. All airlines require your ESA to be well behaved in public and calm on the plane.

American Airlines

American Airlines acknowledges the needs of an individual who requires an emotional support animal or psychiatric service animal. The company requires supporting documents to facilitate the request, such as an ESA Travel Letter issued within the year of travel.

The documentation must come from a licensed mental health professional or a medical doctor, with the following details as per the American Airlines site.

- 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
- The date and type of the mental health professional or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction where it was issued

The documentation should be given to the airline at least two days before the scheduled flight or else the emotional support animal would have to be checked into a kennel in the compartment during the flight.

Delta Airlines

Delta Airlines recommends an early notification about traveling with animals when booking reservations and you can already request for a seat assignment while doing so.  The animal, however, will be required to stay on the floor beside the individual’s seat. As stated in the company’s site, “No animals are allowed to occupy seats that are designed for passengers.”

The airline expects the emotional support animal to be well-behaved and will need documentation from the individual before travel. Specifically, the letter must have the following, per the company site:

- Title, license number and jurisdiction (state/country it was issued), phone number, and signature of mental health professional.
- The passenger has a mental health related disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 4th Edition.
- That the passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger’s destination.
- That the person listed in the letter is under the care of the assessing physician or mental health professional.

Delta Airlines can consider a digital letter saved on a device, as long as this has the information above.

Jet Blue Airlines

As with other airlines, Jet Blue’s requirements for ESA travel is a documentation that has the following, per the company website:

- The customer has a mental health-related disability.
- The animal accompanying the customer is necessary to the customer’s mental health or treatment.
- The number and type of animal(s)
- The individual providing the assessment of the customer is a licensed mental health professional or physician and the customer is under his or her professional care.
- The mental health professional’s or physician’s license number OR the type of license, the issue date and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued

The letter must also not be over one year old from date of travel and it must include the traveler’s confirmation number for easy reference.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines allow for travel of emotional support animals within the cabin, except for destinations to Jamaica. The company also needs a travel letter from a licensed mental health doctor with the following details, as stated on the Southwest Airlines documentation guidelines:

- The passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition (DSM IV)
- The passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger’s destination
- The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional, and the passenger is under his or her professional care
- The date and type of the mental health professional’s or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.

United Airlines

United Airlines also require documentation similar to other companies. However, the airline has some rules as to where the animal should be within the aircraft’s cabin. Specifically, “an animal should sit at the customer’s feet without protruding into the aisles to comply with safety regulations. Customers may elect to use an approved in-cabin kennel for smaller animals. Exit row seating is prohibited,” as per the website:

United Airlines request that the travel documents and other arrangement must be advised at least 48-hours before the flight.

Virgin America

Virgin America’s policy on documentation for travelers with ESA is standard and as with the rest, this should be issued not more than a year old before traveling. It must also be written by a licensed medical professional, as posted on the Virgin America’s site:

The documentation must ascertain that:

- That the guest has a mental health-related disability; and
- That having the animal accompany the guest is necessary for the guest’s mental health, treatment, or to assist the guest (with his or her disability); and
- That the individual providing the assessment of the guest is a licensed mental health professional; and
- That the guest is under the care of the individual providing the documentation.

The airline also require health certificate before the individual is to travel with his pet in Hawaii. It should be valid for at least 30 days from date of travel.

ESA Travel Abuse:

There has been a significant increase in the amount of Emotional Support Animal travel in the last two years, due to the ease of which to get an ESA Certificate Online. There has also been a proliferation of online screening sites to allow passengers to “diagnose” anxiety or other disorders and offer a document designating their pet as a support animal. While we all love our pets, and want to take them with us everywhere, people who really need them are suffering. And, travelers and pets are getting hurt, with untrained pets attacking trained service animals.

Delta flies about 700 service animals per day—a 150 percent increase since 2015. The Atlanta-based company said reported “animal incidents” have increased 84 percent since 2016, including on-board problems with urine, feces and aggressive behavior.

American Airlines says the same thing: “We are looking at additional requirements to help protect our team members and our customers who have a real need for a trained service or support animal,” American said in an emailed statement. “Unfortunately, untrained animals can lead to safety issues for our team, our passengers and working dogs onboard our aircraft.”

A study conducted at the University of California at Davis found that the number of “therapy dogs” or “emotional support animals” registered by animal control facilities in the state increased 1,000 percent between 2002 and 2012. In 2014, a supposed service dog caused a U.S. Airways flight to make an emergency landing after repeatedly defecating in the aisle. A Google News search for “fake service dog” returns more than 2.2 million results. 

This has recently led state governments to try and curb the problem through law. In Massachusetts, a House bill seeks to apply a $500 fine to pet owners who even falsely imply that their animal may be a service dog. In California, the penalty is $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Twelve states now have laws criminalizing the misrepresentation of a pet as a service animal. That's good, but with all the confusion surrounding what a service dog actually is, there's less and less protection for their unique status.

A new bill introduced to the Senate this summer by Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin threatens to add to the confusion even more. If it becomes law, you'll be able to take any animal on a plane simply by telling the airline that it's an ESA. Alarmingly, the bill seems to include ESAs in its definition of service animals.