Your Emotional Support Animal Could Be My Nightmare

Are you seeing more “emotional support animals” when you travel? Although the planes I’ve been on have mainly had cats and dogs, other animals – including pigs – are leaving the barnyard or zoo and moving into the house as pets. And because it’s relatively easy to get ESA certification for a pet whether it’s truly needed or not, airlines, trains and buses are experiencing logistical and legal headaches throughout the country. I doubt people would have a problem with ESAs if the designation hadn’t been so terribly exploited.

In January, the Chicago Tribune reported that United Airlines had carried 76,000 ESAs in 2017, up nearly 77% from the year before. Delta also saw a huge increase: It carried nearly 250,000 service or support animals last year. Also, it saw an 84% increase in reported animal incidents since 2016, along with an increase in employee reports of animals behaving aggressively.

“Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs,” the airline said in a news release.

The U.S. Department of Justice writes that emotional support animals “provide comfort just by being with a person,” distinguishing them from service animals, which are “trained to perform a specific job or task” and have special protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

ESAs, however, do enjoy some accommodations. The federal Air Carrier Access Act has provisions for emotional support animals, which may fly with their owners provided there is adequate documentation (e.g., a note from a licensed health care professional) and/or sufficient notice. There are some restrictions, primarily size-related, on which animals are allowed to fly.

“It turns out pigs can fly. And turtles and dogs, but maybe not peacocks or hamsters,” writes Chloe Reichel in the Journalists’ Review from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

As some household (and exotic) pets receive promotions to more clinical roles as emotional support animals (ESAs), companions that run the gamut from furry to scaly are popping up increasingly in unexpected places.

Here are some questions from people asking about their emotional support animals on a website:

“Would I be able to have two emotional support dogs, and possibly emotional support guinea pigs? They all help with different issues.”

“I have a letter for an emotional support guinea pig and I currently have her. My vet said I should get her another friend of the same species because guinea pigs are supposed to live in pairs. My letter only allows me to have one pet. What should I do?”

So, in other words, her lone guinea pig needs an emotional support animal. Where does it end?

I don’t mean to make light of people who really need an animal to reduce their stress or anxiety level, but I’m thinking there are a lot of other people who simply don’t want to make arrangements to leave an animal home, or pay the fee for putting an animal in the cargo hold.

Changes are Here
Starting March 1, United customers who want to fly with an emotional support animal “need to confirm that the animal has been trained to behave properly in public and acknowledge their responsibility for the animal’s conduct, in addition to giving the usual 48 hours’ notice and presenting a letter from a mental health professional,” said the Tribune article.

It stated that passengers also will need to provide a health and vaccination form signed by a veterinarian, along with the veterinarian’s assurance there is no reason to think the animal will threaten the health and safety of others on board or cause a significant disruption.

Airlines can refuse service for support snakes (why would someone want a support snake?), reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders and spiders, along with animals that are too large or heavy, pose a threat to health or safety, or would disrupt service. United also said recently that it would also excludes hedgehogs, insects, non-household birds, exotic animals and any animals that aren’t properly cleaned or carry a foul odor, according to the Tribune article.

It’s too bad that bad actors have made it more difficult for people who really need ESAs, but isn’t that often the case? People – and their lawyers – who look for the loopholes make a more regulated world for the rest of us.