Picture this: you're walking down the aisle in an airplane and when you find your seat, there's a turkey sitting next to it. Or a pig. Or a monkey. It sounds like a comedy routine, but it isn't. In the past few years, there has been an unprecedented rise in people having 'emotional support animals', particularly when traveling on airplanes. While any step towards improving mental health is applauded, there have been many incidents involving emotional support animals on airplanes that really don't belong there. We can't blame these untrained animals for acting the way animals act, but we can question the laws that allow them on board. With new regulations from the US Department of Transport, things are about to change. We discuss these changes below, and whether they are for the better or the worse.
What Exactly is an Emotional Support Animal?
You may have heard the term being thrown around recently, but what exactly is an emotional support animal (ESA), also known as an assistance animal or support animal? ESAs are companion animals for people with mental or physical disabilities, mental health conditions or emotional disorders. Emotional support animals aren't the same as service dogs, which are trained specifically to perform a function, such as assisting a blind person when walking.
Emotional support animals provide therapeutic or emotional support, and they don't have to be trained for this. In fact, most animals emotional support animals aren't trained - they're just the animals that provide the most comfort to their owner. However, emotional support animals must be officially registered with an Emotional Support Animal Registry to be able to go with their owner to work and travel on airplanes.
While service dogs are only ever dogs, there is no restrictions on what animal may qualify as an emotional support animal. However, not just anyone can register their animal as an emotional support animal; people wishing to register their animal must be considered emotionally or mentally disabled by a licensed therapist and proven with an official prescription letter.
What Laws Have Changed?
With emotional support animals becoming more popular in the recent years, there have been many instances of confusion regarding which animals should be allowed in public spaces and on airplanes. The result of this were some pretty funny stories about some weird animals that you wouldn't typically expect to provide comfort (tarantulas? Snakes? No thank you). But on the 8th August 2019, the US Department of Transportation released a statement to clear up the confusion.
Effective immediately, the most important points of the document were that only dogs, cats and miniature horses are allowed on airplanes, and this means all breeds of the animals mentioned (that means you too, pitbulls!). Emotional support animals must have the relevant documentation, and must be old enough (at least over 4 months) to behave well in public. There are also new weight restrictions, limits to how many support animals can be on an airplane, and guidelines to how far in advance the airlines must be made aware of the emotional support animal. For an in-depth break down of the new regulations regarding emotional support animals, see the full report.
What's The Difference Between a Service Dog and an Emotional Support Animal?
Up until now, the laws regarding emotional support animals have been a bit hazy. There have been many stories of fake emotional support animals with owners buying emotional support vests, leashes and signs from Amazon. But if your animal provides emotional support to you, isn't that what counts? At home, yes. But in public spaces, on public transport, in restaurants, and on airplanes, no.
With service dogs, it is a different story because they have been trained to behave in a certain way. They have unlimited approval to enter any public spaces their owner chooses to go to, and staff members of businesses are legally only allowed to ask if the dog is a service animal because of a disability, and what work the dog has been trained to perform. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states explicitly that emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals are NOT considered service animals under the ADA, and therefore are not allowed to enjoy the same movement rights as service animals.
But the intricacies of these laws haven't been taken into account by a large number of people with emotional support animals. To make it worse, there are many phony websites that provide people with fake certificates for their emotional support animals without the knowledge of the animals' owners. But legitimate emotional support animal certifications are only useful when traveling on airplanes; in all other public spaces, they do not allow the same privileges that service dogs receive. Businesses have the right to deny entrance to emotional support animals.
Why? The most important difference is that service dogs are trained to be in public places and can potentially save the life of their owner. Emotional support animals are not trained to be in public places and because of this, could potentially be harmful to other members of the public.
Do Emotional Service Animals Ever Behave Badly?
When the equation is an untrained animal + the general public, the end results aren't always good. One man on a Delta flight was sitting next to an emotional support dog (not his), when it suddenly attacked him and bit his face. He needed 28 stitches. Then there is the inevitable situation: a passenger sat in a seat that an emotional support dog had done it's business on. Sitting in dog poop is not an ideal way to start a plane journey.
The stories aren't all about dogs though. Daisy the squirrel delayed a flight for two hours when airport staff discovered there was a rodent on board, much to the anger of all the non-squirrel passengers. There was also Dexter the Peacock, who was denied entry onto a plane (presumably because he simply wouldn't fit into one seat), the Florida student who was asked to flush her hamster down the airplane toilet (and did), the pig that left some stinky presents in the aisle, the turkey that finally flew, Gizmo the marmoset monkey, and so many more animals from all corners of the animal kingdom.
While these stories can be funny (well, getting your face mauled isn't funny), it can also be pretty terrible for the people involved. Being in an enclosed space with a pile of pig sh*t on the ground can't be too pleasant, and I can't imagine being allergic to an animal that's on the seat next to me is pleasant either.
The News Isn't All Bad
The US Department of Transportation's report makes the laws about flying with an emotional support animal pretty clear. No more turkeys, hedgehogs or goats: the only animals allowed on all planes in the US are dogs (of all breeds), cats and miniature horses. For owners of emotional support pets of other species, things will be a little harder. Well, a lot harder. But flying can be hard enough, without having to think about the needs of your animal.
If you have one of the approved animals, don't try to pretend that your animal is an emotional support animal if it isn't. Your pet should go in the cargo of the plane like everyone else's pets (see this comprehensive guide for flying with your pet).
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