Debate 5/22: Blurred lines create travel tensions

H ave you ever heard of an emotional support mouse? What about an emotional support hedgehog, or mini pig? (Can we get an emotional support Chardonnay over here?) It turns out, all domesticated animals may qualify as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). ESAs are animals whose mere presence works to calm their owner. In order […]

I get by with a little help from my…
emotional support peacock?

Q: Should emotional support animal owners be required to produce documentation to take animals on commercial flights?

By Sarah Sidlow

Have you ever heard of an emotional support mouse? What about an emotional support hedgehog, or mini pig? (Can we get an emotional support Chardonnay over here?) It turns out, all domesticated animals may qualify as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). ESAs are animals whose mere presence works to calm their owner. In order to have a pet deemed an emotional support animal, the owner needs a letter from a doctor or mental health professional stating that the animal is required to help with a mental or emotional condition. Emotional Support Animals don’t have any
formal training.

By contrast, service animals (also known as assistance animals) are described by the Americans with Disabilities Act as animals that have been trained to perform a task for their owner. Mostly dogs, these animals are highly trained for specific purposes like seizure detection, PTSD support and assisting owners who are vision or
hearing impaired.

My dog ate my doctor’s note
Today, both emotional support animals and service animals face many of the challenges their owners do—including the stress of air travel. Earlier this year, United Airlines barred a woman at Newark Liberty International Airport from bringing aboard her emotional support bird—a giant honkin’ peacock. And back in January, Delta made headlines when they announced an update to their service and support animal policy, requiring passengers with emotional support animals to prove that they have been well trained and fully vaccinated. (This, they claim, was in response to a drastic increase in animal-related incidents such as urinating and biting, which have reportedly increased by 84 percent since 2016).

Those who support a tightening of rules around ESAs argue that it’s just too easy to bring a pet on a plane under the guise of medical need. Plus, it’s actually pretty easy to get your pet registered as an emotional support animal (thanks, internet). These animals, they argue, aren’t trained to be anything more than really good house pets, and many (as in the case of the emotional support peacock) can’t reasonably fit in an owner’s lap, or at their feet.

Who are you to say?
But, like the rolling tides of marijuana reform, many wonder whether emotional support animals should be treated with the same legitimacy as service dogs. Who’s to say, they ask, where one person’s “legitimate” emotional needs end, and another’s begin? Is my anxiety somehow less important than your physical injury, just because one is more tangibly supported by the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Moreover, service dogs can be really expensive. According to some online reports, service dogs can easily cost upwards of $20,000 a year if their costs are not covered by a foundation or not-for-profit organization. But legitimate emotional and behavioral issues do not discriminate by bank account. There are plenty of legitimate instances in which a person’s pet is their only link to the real world; their only friend and companion. Should those relationships be called into question because that animal didn’t go to an elite behavioral boot camp? And here’s an interesting side note: According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, one cannot demand identification from someone to prove that their pet is a service animal. That means, for now, it’s pretty hard to distinguish one dog from another. Hedgehogs and boa constrictors might be a
different story.

Q: Should emotional support animal owners be required to produce documentation to take animals on commercial flights?


Hands off my Hedgehog!

An emotional support animal’s place is in the window seat

By Tim Walker

Pets: cats, dogs, et al., those noisy, shedding, beloved animals who share our lives and homes, provide us with many benefits, among them joy, love, companionship, and emotional support. And when we feel vulnerable or stressed, there are times when only the soothing feel of your beloved hamster or your friendly iguana—or even your favorite pig—may be the one thing you need in order to hold it all together.

Flying, for many of us, is definitely one of those times—the National Institute of Mental Health says that a fear of flying, or aviophobia, affects more than 20 million people, or 6.5 percent of the population. So now, in the great American capitalist tradition, an internet cottage industry has sprung up around the registration of “emotional support animals,” for both airline travel and apartment dwelling.

In other words, if you’re planning on flying out to Vegas sometime soon, and you want to take your pet anaconda or tarantula along and spare them the ignominy of the cargo hold, you can direct your browser in advance to any one of a dozen websites, pay the required fees online, and the company will then email you a doctor-certified letter stating that your favorite pet is no longer just a couch warmer. He or she is now a fully registered emotional support animal, capable of quelling fears and calming shattered nerves at a single pounce. Your pet can ride with you on the plane, and the airline has to allow it—for free! Huzzah! (For a little extra, the website will even throw in one of those nifty vests for your pet to wear as you proudly parade him through the TSA area.)

Why should anyone have a problem with this? I don’t see the issue. I come from a long line of animal lovers—I currently share my home with a wife, two kids, five dogs, two rats, two cats, two turtles, a hedgehog, and a yellow-collared macaw—and if I want to have one of my furry or feathered friends share the uncomfortably cramped aisle seat on a flight with me, who has the right to tell me no?

And while I agree there may be some small potential for abuse here—United Airlines reportedly had to stop a woman from bringing her pet peacock onto a flight after she claimed the prideful fowl was actually an emotional support animal, and other passengers have attempted to board planes with therapeutic kangaroos, chickens, pigs, snakes, and even goats in tow—I feel that passengers should be allowed to bring their furry or scaly friends onboard without being challenged. Yes, I need this little rodent’s succor in order to fly, Jack, so get your stinking hands off my hedgehog.

Two airlines, Delta and American, are taking exception to this idea of a Noah’s Ark in the sky, and have recently tightened their rules for transporting service and support animals. The list of newly banned animals sadly includes hedgehogs and other rodents, ferrets, insects, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, amphibians, goats, farm poultry, birds of prey, and any animal with tusks, horns, or hooves.

In addition, the Department of Transportation is considering the implementation of new rules designed to reduce the likelihood that airplane passengers will falsely label their pets “service animals.” The department plans to solicit public comment about the “appropriate definition” of service animals in the near future. Twenty-two states have already passed laws addressing the issue, and lawmakers in Iowa, Arizona, and Minnesota are considering cracking down on service animal fraud.

The cost of living in these United States in the 21st century is learning to live with other people’s foibles, and that, believe it or not, may include sharing your flight with a sugar glider or two. Perhaps some day in the not-too-distant future airlines will change the way they do business—ticket agents will ask you when you reserve your flight if you want a seat in the Goatless section… trained kangaroos may provide beverage service… announcements of “Now boarding Section A—anyone with small children or birds of prey line up behind the blue line, please”… but, for now, let’s just allow those of us who need a helping hand from a furry—or otherwise—friend to just fly those friendly skies in peace, please?

The dogged determination
of ESA Owners

Transporting animals all for free
has become a free-for-all

By Marla Boone

I’m new here, see? This is my fourth debate article and I am treading in the land of giants. One industry hazard is a bias that one’s argument is so obvious, so utterly logical there can be no cogent case against it. If you look to the left (or maybe the right), however, you will find someone this instant who disagrees with me. How can anyone argue against service animal owners being required to show documentation to take those animals on commercial flights?

Using the strictest definition of the words, “service animals” have a legitimate place anywhere. According to the Americans with Disability Act Network, a service animal is any animal that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. The work or task must be directly related to the individual’s disability. What has become herd behavior of the very worse sort, though, is the proliferation of emotional support animals (ESA).

The salient differences between a service dog and an emotional support animal are both enormous and pertinent. As outlined above, service animals are trained. They are trained specifically to meet the needs of a disabled person. They are housebroken. They obey. They are under control. They are not pets. An emotional support animal has no special training to assist people with disabilities. Their sole talent is their presence.

Through the efforts of some well-intentioned people for the benefit of some well-deserving others, it has become possible and legal for a disabled person to bring their service animal with them at no cost on commercial flights. But because we have become a country of “let me see how much I can cash in on someone else’s misfortune,” a burgeoning army have decided they cannot function without a companion dog. Or horse. Or pig. Or hamster. Or peacock. Airlines are not—small mercies—required to recognize other species of ESA such as snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders. (Really !?! We can only hope it’s not the one I squished in the kitchen this morning). Unsavory folks who know a loophole when they see it have hitched their leashes (or however you harness a spider) to the ADA and have exploited
it shamelessly.

Any traveler can attest to the huge increase in the number of dogs being hauled through airports and onto commercial flights. In the past twenty years, I have seen approximately zero service dogs on airplanes. During the past five years, in contrast, the ESA population has multiplied like a puppy mill. This means either we are in the midst of widespread emotional meltdowns, or are seeing a fabulous scam being visited upon airline travel. Because the vast majority of people don’t know the difference between service dogs and emotional support animals, the unscrupulous are getting away with it. Most airlines limit the number of animals allowed on a flight. What is especially loathsome is the notion a wannabe ESA could prevent a true service animal from being permitted to board.

There is a buck to be made, so it is astonishingly easy to declare any mutt on earth an ESA. Enter “emotional support animal” into a search engine and be entertained by riveting links such as “Take Your Dog Anywhere” and “We Offer the Only Legal ESA Letter.” For $79 anyone can acquire a lifetime ESA registration for their pet (which means absolutely nothing), a nifty-looking certificate (ditto), two ID cards, and an emotional support dog tag. Another $80 will buy that spiffy little vest. One site claims it runs on the “honor system” that people applying for these goodies really need them. Written verbiage less than one year old under the letterhead of a mental health professional is just about all that is needed. Do you have a computer? Do you have a printer? Even if you can’t find someone to churn one out for you, it’s a DIY project to get that “letter.” But to quote the ADA website: “It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.”

Because the number of ESA has grown, so have the untoward incidents. There has been a 500% increase in the number of complaints about emotional support animals, including the infamous episode of an emotional support pig defecating during an American flight. Alleged ESA’s have bitten other dogs, been unruly enough to require a muzzle, and have been spotted sporting diapers. Complaints about seeing eye dogs haven’t gone up at all.

As is sadly too often the case, fixing the problem is going to entail burdening the legitimate because of the fraudulent. Anyone attempting to have their animal with them on a commercial flight should be required to provide factual documentation proving the animal is necessary. Even this doesn’t go far enough. The animal ought to be trained, under control, and fulfill all other criteria of a service animal. An emotional support animal shouldn’t create emotional distress in the rest of us.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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