Your definitive guide to traveling ethically with an emotional support animal

Jun 15, 2020

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

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.

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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 or advance notice (except on flights lasting eight hours or more). In contrast, animals used for emotional or psychiatric support require additional verification as designated by individual airlines.

Related: TPG’s beginner’s guide: everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards

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, such as letters from mental health professionals and vet records, among others.

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

Related: The best travel cards of June 2020

In early 2020, the Department of Transportation gave a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to update regulations when traveling with a service animal. The proposed amendments include:

  • A revised definition of the term “service animal”: “The Department proposes to define a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
  • A recognition of ESAs as pets: “The Department’s proposed rulemaking does not require airlines to recognize emotional support animals as service animals. Airlines would be permitted to treat emotional support animals, which are not trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, as pets.”
  • A species limitation: “Under the Department’s proposed rule, airlines would only be required to transport dogs as service animals. As a result, airlines would no longer be required to accommodate miniature horses, cats, rabbits, birds, and all other service animals that airlines are currently required to transport.”
  • New documentation guidelines: “Airlines would be permitted to require passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal to complete and submit to the airline the following forms developed by DOT as a condition of transportation: (1) U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Health Form; (2) U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Behavior and Training Attestation Form; (3) U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation. … Under the Department’s proposal, these three documents would be the only documents that an airline could require from an individual with a disability traveling with a service animal.”
  • Check-in requirements: “The Department proposes to allow airlines to require all passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal to check in one hour before the check-in time for the general public as a condition for travel with a service animal to allow time to process the service animal documentation and observe the animal.”
  • Limit on number of service animals per passenger: “The Department’s NPRM proposes to require airlines to accept up to two service animals per passenger for transport on an aircraft.”
  • Limit on size of service animal: “The Department proposes to allow airlines to limit service animals based on whether the animal can fit onto the service animal handler’s lap or within the handler’s foot space.”
  • Required control of animal: “The Department proposes to continue to permit airlines to require that service animals be harnessed, leashed, tethered or otherwise under the control of its handler at all times in the airport and on the aircraft.”
  • Analysis of potential threat: “The Department proposes to continue to allow airlines to refuse to transport a service animal if the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”
  • Breed restrictions: “In the NPRM, the Department proposes explicit language that states that airlines are not permitted to refuse to transport service animals based on breed.

Related: Majority of flight attendants say emotional support animals misbehave in-flight

Currently, the rules outlined by the DOT are as follows:

  1. Airlines will not allow snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders or spiders.
  2. Service animals cannot: be too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin; pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others; cause a significant disruption of cabin service; be an animal prohibited from entering a foreign country.
  3. Airlines can determine whether an animal is a service animal or ESA/PSA/pet by: the credible verbal assurances of an individual with a disability using the animal; looking for physical indicators such as the presence of a harness or tags; and observing the behavior of animals.
  4. Airlines can request specific documentation and/or 48-hours advance notice for service animals that are emotional support animals and psychiatric service animal.

Related: A Wisconsin man is developing an app to help travelers with disabilities

OK, so what documentation do I need?

Medical professional’s authorization

The doctor’s note should be a formal declaration dated no earlier than 365 days before an initial scheduled flight and usually includes the following statements:

  • That the passenger has a mental or emotional health-related disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); 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

Related: This airport tech makes flying easier for passengers with disabilities

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)

Related: Delta further restricts emotional support animal policy

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

Related: Traveling with a disability? Why you should consider a cruise.

Passenger’s guarantee of behavior

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, as well as the passenger’s full name, signature, phone number and email address.

Related: Spirit Airlines adds restrictions on emotional support animals

What should I do with these forms?

Every carrier has different requirements for how the forms should be submitted. Some require them to be submitted 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 resource pages for bringing emotional support animals on board the most popular carriers.

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.

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; must submit document 48 hours before travel. Download the forms here. Yes; dated within 10 days of originating travel or within 30 days of return travel on the same ticket; must submit document 48 hours before travel. Yes; must submit document 48 hours before travel. 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; must be presented to an Allegiant representative at least one hour prior to scheduled departure. Download forms here. Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must be presented to an Allegiant representative at least one hour prior to scheduled departure. Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must be presented to an Allegiant representative at least one hour prior to scheduled departure. Allegiant allows service animals in-training and on-duty law enforcement/search and rescue dogs. Notification is required 72 hours in advance of scheduled departure for verification.
American Airlines Yes; must be submitted at least 48 hours before travel time. Download forms here. Yes; must be submitted at least 48 hours before travel time. Yes; must be submitted at least 48 hours before travel time. If a flight is over eight hours, an Animal Sanitation Form is required, stating your animal won’t need to relieve itself or can do so in a way that doesn’t create a health or sanitation issue.
Delta Air Lines Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must be submitted at least 48 hours before travel time via My Trips. Download forms here. Yes; must be submitted at least 48 hours before travel via My Trips. Yes; must be submitted at least 48 hours before travel via My Trips. Service and support animals and their associated items travel for free.
Frontier Airlines Yes; must be dated within one year from the date of outbound flight; must be submitted 48 hours in advance. Download forms here. Yes; must be dated within one year from the date of outbound flight; must be submitted 48 hours in advance. Yes; must be dated within one year from the date of outbound flight; must be submitted 48 hours in advance. The ESA must be in a carrier that can be stowed under the seat in front of the customer or on a leash at all times while in the airport and on board the aircraft.
Hawaiian Airlines Yes; valid for one year past date signed; must notify airline 48 hours before travel. Passengers must also check in one hour before the general public. Download forms here. Yes; required on North America to Hawaii flights. Yes; must be signed once you check-in. 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 is required; document must be dated within one year from the date of outbound flight’ must be submitted at least 48 hours prior to travel. Download documents here. Yes; hard copy is required; document must be dated within one year from the date of outbound flight’ must be submitted at least 48 hours prior to travel. Yes; hard copy is required; document must be dated within one year from the date of outbound flight’ must be submitted at least 48 hours prior to travel. You should add the animal to your reservation when booking online or notify JetBlue at 1-800-JETBLUE (538-2583) of the animal’s travel.
Southwest Airlines Yes; must be on official letterhead from a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor who is treating the customer; must be dated within one year of travel. Download instructions here. Not required Not required It is strongly encouraged to notify Southwest in advance if you will be traveling with an emotional support animal. When booking a new reservation, passengers may use the “Special Assistance” link to indicate that he/she will be seeking to travel with an emotional support animal.
Spirit Airlines Yes; must be dated within one year of initial travel date; must submit forms at least 48 hours before travel. Download forms here. Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must submit forms at least 48 hours before travel. Yes; dated within one year of initial travel date; must submit forms at least 48 hours before travel. 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; valid if dated within one year of initial travel date; must submit forms 48 hours before travel. Download forms here. Yes; valid if dated within one year of initial travel date; must submit forms 48 hours before travel. Yes; valid if dated within one year of initial travel date; must submit forms 48 hours before travel. United only recognizes service animals that have been trained and certified. Animal trainers are permitted to bring one service animal that is training to assist disabled passengers onboard free of charge.

Onboard etiquette

Now we come to the meat of the issues with emotional support animals: passengers who bring untrained personal pets on board. 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. 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)

Related: Did American Airlines remove a passenger with a disability from a flight—with no explanation?

When a person with a disability receives a service animal, they should make sure that their animal is fit for public access. The Americans with Disabilities Act outlines some guidelines that owners must follow, and we added a few that we think are important to make your trip less stressful:

  1. Your animal is required to remain under your control at all times. The easiest way to do this is to use a harness, leash or tether. A harness or identifying tags will most easily alert carriers that the animal is a service animal.
  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 should 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.
  4. 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.

Related: Top 5 challenges when traveling with a child who has special needs

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 and to prevent any unnecessary discrimination.

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.

Additional reporting by Mimi Wright

Featured photo by nadisja/Getty Images

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