Photo Credit: Zen Chung
Flying With Emotional Support Animals: Here's What You Should Know
To some, a dog is just a dog, but to others, they are part of the family. They can be regular pets, emotional support animals (ESAs), or service dogs.
On July 21, 2021, a dog named Louis died in cargo on a Hawaiian Airlines flight. This sparked discussion on ESAs and their treatment on planes. The owner, Dr. Randall Carpio, hoped Louis could help support his patients, as the dog had a charming temperament. Sadly, this was not to be. According to Honest Paws, “between 2010 and 2020, Hawaiian Airlines had 21 related incidents, putting it on the list of the top 5 worst pet friendly airlines.”
While some criticize the notion of animals on planes, because of some absurd animal types passed as emotional support, as we previously reported— others need their ESA to help with mental health issues or social disorders.
In 2019, a Delta Air Lines passenger sought legal action after being ‘mauled’ by a dog on a flight, which sparked a lot of questions on the safety of ESAs on planes. In early 2021, we saw nearly every major US-based carrier roll out new policies banning the pets from the main cabins, forcing owners to fly their pets in cargo holds— like Dr. Carpio above.
For more insight on ESAs, Travel Noire consulted with Prairie Conlon, a mental health professional, and leading expert on emotional support animals. She not only addressed the death of Louis, but sharply criticized the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) ban on ESAs:
“This is an absolute tragedy, although expected with the new laws passed by the Department of Transportation to no longer recognize emotional support animals and allowing airlines to place them in cargo. This unnecessary tragedy could have been prevented if the DOT didn’t outright ban emotional support animals entirely. Instead of making a few simple amendments to only recognize dogs, cats, and rabbits with basic training or containment, they decided to ban them altogether due to a few ridiculous incidents with peacocks and snakes that represent a fraction of a percentage of the problem. I have pointed out for years that simply amending the types of animals allowed as ESAs and requiring basic training, or keeping them in containment for the smaller cats and rabbits, could prevent 99% of the problems airlines face with the so called ESA problem.”
If you’re thinking of traveling with an ESA, here are some important facts to bear in mind:
1. Emotional Support Animals and Service Dogs Differ
According to The American Kennel Club, service dogs are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” as outlined by the Americans With Disabilities Act. This grants them access to anywhere humans can go, and they are identifiable by a vest that says, “Service Dog- Do Not Pet,” or a variation of that.
These dogs can’t be distracted while at work, so please don’t touch them or even make eye contact without the owner’s consent.
An ESA can comfort somebody with anxiety, depression, or certain phobias. It isn’t that their work is less valid than that of a service dog, but they are kept on a tighter leash, so to speak.
As the name suggests, ESAs can include non-dog species like reptiles, spiders, birds, pigs and horses.
One man made the news for his pet alligator, who helps ease his depression at home in lieu of medication. Obviously, an animal that dangerous can’t be admitted on a plane!
Another curious story involves a miniature horse named Fred, who flew First class with his owner, a woman with an incurable autoimmune disorder. Prior to the ESA ban, the horse had been cleared to fly, and wasn’t bothering anybody, but he still got dirty looks from unsympathetic passengers.
Some believe the ban is long overdue, and that allowing so many animals in the cabin is absurd. The Association of Flight Attendants derisively called it, “Noah’s Ark in the air.”
2. Plan Accordingly For A Smooth Flight
When traveling with your ESA, planning is crucial, according to Dr. Jamie Freyer, a veterinarian and expert at Honest Paws.
“When planning to travel with your pet, it’s important to start thinking about logistics early. Pets will need a health certificate from a veterinarian in order to board an airplane. Depending on the destination, they may also need proof of microchip, vaccines, or other diagnostic tests, as well as a more extensive health certificate.”
Dr. Freyer adds, “how a pet responds to airplane travel is dependent on many things, including its personality and previous experiences. Many people wish to sedate their pets for travel, especially when the travel includes plane rides. However, most veterinarians do not recommend using heavy sedation when on a plane, as there will be no recourse if the pet does not react well to the medication. “
3. Some Dog Breeds May Be Ill Suited For Air Travel
Dogs that are brachycephalic, or short nosed, can experience breathing difficulty. Such breeds include pitbulls, pugs, English bulldogs and French bulldogs.
It’s possible that Louis, as a pitbull, might have had breathing challenges while in cargo on Hawaiian Airlines, even though he was an otherwise healthy and active dog.
Dr. Freyer addresses the challenges short nosed dogs experience:
“Unfortunately, brachycephalic dogs often have a number of conformational issues that result in difficulty breathing. These dogs may have elongated soft palates and tiny nostrils (what are known as ‘stenotic nares’ in the veterinary world), as well as a smaller trachea.”
Dr. Freyer goes on to give a visual example:
“Imagine trying to drink water out of a tiny straw, and something at the bottom of the cup keeps getting sucked up into the straw and blocking your ability to drink. This is akin to what brachycephalic dogs experience, especially on a plane, where the pressurized air contains lower oxygen levels.”
Plane temperature also plays a role in a dog’s flight experience.
“The combination of oxygen deprivation with stress and high temperatures (brachycephalic dogs commonly develop heat-related illness) can be deadly for pups who are already predisposed to having difficulty breathing.”
Check with your veterinarian before flying with your ESA, especially any brachycephalic dog breed.
4. Some Dogs Are Allowed In the Cabin While Others Aren't
As of now, only certified service dogs are allowed in the cabin with their owner. Whether ESAs are permitted is entirely at the discretion of the airline, and if they are, they’ll be expected to fit under the seat, or go in cargo for a fee.
Dr. Freyer suggests, “you will want to research your particular airline carrier; they all have different regulations regarding which pets are allowed to fly, and where the pets will fly. For the majority of airlines, the only dogs that can reside in the cabin during flight are trained service dogs or dogs small enough to fit in a kennel underneath the seat in front of you. Airlines will not let you squish your dog into the kennel; they must be able to stand, sit, and turn around normally.”
5. You May Adore Your ESA, But Some Others Won't
Your ESA might mean the world to you, and you might think it’s harmless for them to sniff or lick a stranger passing by.
But other people, due to trauma, allergies, or simply not liking animals, might not hold your ESA in the same high esteem, and that’s their right.
In tight quarters like an aircraft, being able to control your animal is a reasonable expectation.
6. The ESA Ban On Some Airlines Is Controversial
In January 2021, United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, and Alaska Airlines banned ESAs in the cabins. After some deliberation, Southwest Airlines followed suit, with a ban that went into effect in March.
This followed a revision to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) by the Department of Transportation. This act defines a service animal as a dog, “regardless of breed or type, 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.”
While each airline applies the ban differently, the reason for it is about the same across the board. Their objective is to make flights as comfortable as possible for all passengers, and to thwart any disruptions that may arise when an animal is present.
ESA supporters fired back at what they believe is a form of discrimination. Dog owners like Leana Rendon have created petitions pushing for a more fair and inclusive approach.
Yahoo Life reported that Rendon’s German Shepherd, Charlie, helps her manage her crippling anxiety. He’s too large to fit in a carrier under the seat, and Rendon refuses to put him in cargo, so their flying options are about nil.
“I will not be putting the animal who has saved my life in cargo- he must be at my side at all times,” says Rendon. She’s in favor of establishing a strict set of criteria that all ESAs must meet to ensure they have proper obedience training and certifications prior to flight.
“Mental health is a very serious issue,” Rendon asserts. “And with these bans, many have felt discriminated against, especially the ones who are not taking advantage and have well-behaved dogs.”
Where do you stand, Travel Noire family? Are certain airlines and the DOT morally in the right to ban ESAs, or is this extreme?