Headline Article Travel & Recreation

Here’s What You Should Know About Traveling With an Emotional Support Animal

Written by Timothy Werth

For many of us, our household canine or feline is truly a member of the family. And since most households in the U.S. have at least one pet, the majority of Americans likely rely on their furry friends to provide warmth, comfort, and joy. Indeed, our animals are uniquely suited to provide emotional support in our time of need — so much so that many pet owners officially rely on their dogs, cats, and other domesticated creatures to provide them with therapeutic benefits. But while you might hope that your pet can keep you calm in a stressful situation, traveling with them may prove to be more anxiety-inducing than one would expect.

As the topic of mental health becomes less taboo, the prevalence of therapy seems to be increasing. With only 33% of Americans being able to truthfully say that they’re happy in their daily lives, it’s no surprise that people are seeking out ways to improve their moods.

And it makes sense that physicians and therapists are willing to prescribe something that already makes us smile by giving it a psychological edge. According to the American Psychological Association, 61% of college students attending 139 colleges nationwide sought counseling for anxiety in 2016.

With the need for qualified counselors on the rise, many students are turning to emotional support animals to provide the care they need. Unlike service animals, which are specifically trained to help those with disabilities, emotional support animals (or ESAs) don’t always require that specific kind of training. So while they might provide a sense of security and calm for a student, there’s potential that the animal could very well disrupt others in a close vicinity.

Still, that’s not keeping ESAs off of college campuses — or out of public places either, even if business owners wish that weren’t the case. There is a difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal. Service dogs are trained to perform specific jobs that their owner cannot do. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are supposed to serve as companions that provide therapeutic support. In both cases, the owner must have a diagnosed disability or mental health issue. However, the owners of emotional support animals receive fewer protections through the ADA than those who own service dogs do. Technically, business owners cannot refuse service to someone with a service animal, but those business owners are not required to accommodate emotional support animals in their facilities. Emotional support animal owners are given certain protections when it comes to housing and air travel, although that may not mean much given the increasing number of incidents pertaining to airlines and pets.

If you do plan to travel with your emotional support animal, there are a number of regulations of which you’ll want to be aware. In 2017, the use of emotional support animals on planes rose by an astounding 74%. Although some airports actually provide their own emotional support animal programs, individual airlines are not always so forgiving when it comes to traveling with pets of any kind. Emotional support animals do not have to comply with regular airline regulations pertaining to weight limits and pet carrier sizes, they do need to be accompanied by an ESA letter (which explains that you require this animal for legitimate emotional support). In addition, the animal must comply with specific guidelines set forth by the individual airline. It’s important that owners do their due diligence and perform adequate research to find out what’s required for their animal well in advance of their flight. Typically, you’ll need to submit all documentation at least 48 hours prior to your departure — and remember that an airline can likely deny your request if they see fit. Most airlines won’t allow exotic support animals on-board, so don’t be surprised if your snake or ferret is denied entry. You will certainly need medical provider authorization and documentation from your veterinarian if you want your case to be considered. You may also need to provide a passenger’s guarantee that your animal is well-trained and that you take full responsibility for their actions.

As of now, ESAs are typically still allowed on flights. But that could all change in the future, as the Department of Transportation is reviewing thousands of complaints from passengers. In some cases, travelers have been able to claim that their animal provided emotional support when they really just wanted to bring their dog with them on vacation. This could cause problems for legitimate patients down the line. In addition, some airports have announced that if you’re merely picking up a friend from the airport, you should leave your emotional support animal at home.

As long as you play by the rules and your emotional support animal is well-behaved, you probably won’t have a problem when attempting to travel with them. But it’s important to understand that you won’t have as many rights as someone with a service animal will — and that expecting others to respect your choice of travel companion may be too much to hope for… especially if you’ve adopted an emotional support peacock.

About the author

Timothy Werth