Your Definitive Guide to Traveling Ethically With an Emotional Support Animal

Aug 15, 2019

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Emotional support animals (ESAs) have become frequent flyers and created significant issues for airlines, from stolen seats to federal legislation. The massive uptick in passengers flying with their ESAs has led to reactions from, well, everyone.

If you’re going to fly with an animal, there are policies, regulations and etiquette that you need to follow.

In This Post

Service vs. Emotional Support Animals

As an owner of a service animal, it drives me crazy when people mistake one for the other.

The essential definition is this: A service animal helps a person with a disability. A service animal, if used for any other purpose than emotional or psychiatric support, requires no additional documentation, advance notice (except on flights lasting eight hours or more) or veterinary documentation. In contrast, service animals used for emotional or psychiatric support require additional verification as designated by individual airlines.

However, the federal government itself can’t figure out how it wants service and emotional support animals regulated for air travel. The Americans With Disabilities Act has one definition for service animals and the Air Carrier Access Act has another. Since we’re talking about flying, which falls under the ACAA’s jurisdiction, here’s its definition:

“A service animal is any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.”

On the surface, that means that all service and support animals traveling with their owner fall under the umbrella term “service animal.” However, there are additional provisions for emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric support animals (PSAs), which include such forms of verification as letters from mental health professional and vet records.

There is a difference between emotional support and service animals. (Photo by Jodi Jacobson / Getty Images)

You probably have seen news reports of  websites selling “emotional support animal letters” so that owners may bring their pets on board airplanes free of charge.

What Documentation Do I Need?

After the Department of Transportation gave a notice of proposed rule-making in 2018, airlines began requiring loads of different forms in order to grant access for ESAs and PSAs, including the use of their own airline-specific forms. However, the final DOT notice delivered last week says this:

“Airlines may ask or encourage an ESA and PSA [psychiatric service animal] user to submit the medical form provided on the airline’s website, but may not reject documentation provided by an ESA or PSA user from a licensed mental health professional treating the passenger that meets all of the criteria found in the rule itself.”

The amended rules do note, however, that airlines can continue to request additional information for ESA/PSAs. This information can include:

  1. Written declaration from a medical provider stating the need for an emotional support animal
  2. Veterinary certification confirming the animal is in recent good health and up to date on shots
  3. A statement from the passenger affirming that the animal will behave on the flight and in the airport

Medical Professional’s Authorization

The doctor’s note should be a formal declaration on the letterhead of their clinic, signed by the passenger’s psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker or other medical doctor specifically treating their mental or emotional disability. The note must be dated no earlier than 365 days before an initial scheduled flight and should include the following statements: 

  • That the passenger has a mental or emotional health-related disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition (DSM IV); the note does not have to disclose the specifics of the disability
  • That having the animal accompany them is necessary for their mental health or treatment, or to assist them with their disability during the flight or upon their arrival
  • That the individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional and that the passenger is under his or her professional care
  • The date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued
  • The doctor’s signature

Veterinary Documentation

This form is filled out by the animal’s primary care provider, and lets the airline know the breed/size of the animal and whether it is up to date on all shots. As with the medical professional’s statement, the vet form has to be dated within one year of the initial departure date.

The veterinarian should complete and sign off on the following information:

  • Animal type
  • Animal breed
  • Animal weight, if more than 20 pounds
  • The last date the animal received the following vaccinations, if applicable to the breed:
    • rabies (include date vaccine was administered)
    • distemper (include date vaccine was administered)

The vet should also state whether the animal can safely travel in the passenger cabin and what measures, if any, would be helpful to safely transport the animal in the aircraft cabin:

  • Kennel
  • Muzzle
  • This animal should only travel in cargo hold
  • Other

Finally, passengers need the vet’s license and contact information:

  • Date and type of license
  • License number
  • State or other jurisdiction in which license was issued
  • Veterinarian’s name, signature and date of statement
  • Business phone number and email address

Passenger’s Guarantee

A handful of carriers require one more form to be personally completed by the passenger. There are no formal requirements for the format of this statement, but it should include:

  • Evidence that the animal has been trained to behave in public, if applicable, such as behavior school certification
  • The written statement below:

I confirm that this animal has been trained to behave in a public setting and takes my direction upon command.
I understand that if my service animal acts inappropriately, that it will be considered not acceptable for air travel and will be denied boarding or will be removed from the aircraft.

  • The passenger’s full name, signature, phone number and email address

What Should I Do With These Forms?

Every carrier has different requirements for how the forms should be submitted. Some require them uploaded or emailed at least 48 hours before travel time, while others simply appreciate a heads-up in advance. To simplify the process, here are the individual requirements and relevant FAQ pages for bringing emotional support animals on board the most popular carriers.

Note that many airlines have not yet updated their websites to reflect the DOT’s newest ruling. While an airline can request that those traveling with their ESA/PSA submit a doctor’s letter, veterinary health form and testament to good behavior, airlines are not allowed to require their own specific forms and must accept documentation that fulfills the requirements as defined by the Air Carrier Access Act and its implementing regulation, 14 CFR Part 382.

US Airlines

Airline Requires Doctor Authorization Requires Vet Documentation Requires Passenger Guarantee of Good Behavior Additional Information
Alaska Air Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; prior notification to the airline is not required, but highly recommended. Not required Not required When traveling with an emotional/ psychiatric support animal, you are not permitted to sit in an emergency exit row.
Allegiant Air Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; prior notification to the airline is not required, but highly recommended. Not required Not required To add a service animal or emotional support animal, select the Travel with Pets option below the passenger name input section when booking.
American Airlines Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date, and submitted at least 48 hours before travel time. Not required Not required Form or equivalent physician statement must be faxed to American Airlines Special Assistance Coordinators desk at 817-967-4715, or email to Sacdesk.sro@aa.com at least 48 hours prior to travel.
Delta Air Lines Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date, and submitted at least 48 hours before travel time via My Trips. Yes; forms can be downloaded here Yes; forms can be downloaded here Request is not confirmed until the animal has been visually verified at airport check-in counter.
Frontier Airlines Yes; hard copy required. Must be dated within one year of initial travel date; prior notification to the airline is not required, but highly recommended. Not required Verbal assurances of training and an outline of the services the animal provides. When traveling with an emotional/ psychiatric support animal, you are not permitted to sit in an emergency exit row.
Hawaiian Airlines Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must notify airline 48 hours before domestic travel, and 72 hours before international travel. Passengers must also check in one hour before the general public. Not required Aggressive or disruptive animals will not be allowed on board. On flights that are 8+ hours long, passenger must provide documentation that the animal will not need to relieve itself on the flight, or that the animal can relieve itself in a way that does not create a health or sanitation issue.
JetBlue Yes; hard copy required. Must be dated within one year of initial travel date; prior notification to the airline is not required, but highly recommended. Not required Not required Documents must be in non-editable format (PDF, photo scan, etc.). Word documents will not be accepted.
Southwest Airlines Not formally required, but strongly recommended. Prior notification to the airline is not required, but highly recommended. Not required Not required Employees may ask fact-finding questions to assess what services the animal provides.

Animals may ride under seats or on customer’s lap.

Spirit Airlines Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must notify airline at least 48 hours before domestic travel. Passengers must also check in at least 90 minutes before departure. Not required Not required Passengers with emotional support animals cannot sit in emergency exit rows or, if the animal is in a carrier, the first row.
United Airlines Yes; forms can be downloaded here. Yes Dated within one year of initial travel date, and submitted at least 48 hours before travel time. Email uaaeromed@united.com with first departure date and flight confirmation code in the subject line. Documentation must be received no later than 48 hours prior to travel.

Onboard Etiquette

Now we come to the meat of the issues with emotional support animals: passengers who bring untrained personal pets on board. Sometimes, if they can’t control their animal, chaos ensues.

(Photo by Holly Hildreth / Getty Images)
There are rules about where the animal can be on board so be sure to check before you fly. (Photo by Holly Hildreth / Getty Images)

Though the DOT has stated that it will consider, on a “case-by-case” basis, how airlines enforce containment of service and emotional support animals, it notes that in general, tethering and similar methods of containment are reasonable expectations. The notice also refers to the right of others to enjoy their own foot space and that airline attendants are not required to ask other passengers to move in order to accommodate service (and emotional support) animals.

Nevertheless, it can be a real pain for everyone when an animal comes on board. As an owner, you have to jump through tons of hoops to verify that your animal can travel with you. Your dog has to figure out this new and very different environment. And your fellow passengers have to contend with this unexpected guest that comes with all the panting, smells and fur that you’d expect, but in a much more confined space.

When a person with a disability receives a service animal, they are required to undergo a test in order to certify that their animal is fit for public access. Similarly, they are given a set of guidelines to follow — not because it’s required by an airline or by the government, but because ensuring that your animal is well-behaved and under your control at all times is critical to your success as a service animal/owner team:

  1. Your animal will at all times wear an identifying harness, vest and/or tags. This isn’t federally required but it makes everyone else around you feel better and visually differentiates your animal from a pet.
  2. You will make sure that your animal is trained not to relieve itself in a public setting. I think this is self-explanatory.
  3. Your animal will remain under your control at all times.The easiest way to do this is to use a leash. However, you can also use a remote collar, kennel, seat-belt harness or whatever keeps your animal under your direct control. Do your arms count? Yes. But it’s rude and inconsiderate, especially if your fellow passengers have fears about animals.
  4. Your animal does not climb on seats. This is true whether you’re in a restaurant or a movie theater or on an airplane. It may seem fun and cute, but putting your animal in your lap (or on a seat next to you) is a bad idea for several reasons. It can make your animal even more anxious as it’s physically closer to people. It eliminates nearly all freedom of movement for your animal and it brings dander/fur/dust nearer to everyone, especially allergy sufferers. Unless the animal absolutely needs to be near your face (it might be a medical necessity), keep them on the floor, in your designated foot space.
  5. You will ensure that your animal behaves properly in a public setting. It’s easy to make sure my dog doesn’t growl or solicit snuggles while she’s working because an organization spent an entire year and countless man-hours training her not to. But just because an animal is thoroughly trained, a person traveling with an ESA or PSA is not off the hook. Part of the reason for the passenger guarantee above is that airlines are making people accountable for their animal’s behavior. Will it take a professional organization a year to train an animal to behave in stressful situations? No. But a puppy class, some dog treats and a few hours a week will go a long way in making sure that your animal is fit for airline travel.

Bottom Line

The entire world is reacting to the proliferation of emotional support animals. Airlines are tightening regulations. The DOT is trying to rectify vague wording in dated documents to make sure that those flying truly need their animals.

When one sensational story after another goes viral, it can seem like the entire world of service and emotional support animals is under the spotlight. Do your part: Make sure your documents are in order. Take your animal to the bathroom before you get on the plane. Make sure that you are maintaining accountability for both you and your animal so that everyone (including Fido) can get to their destination safely.

Featured photo by nadisja / Getty Images.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 60,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,200

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.