Emotional support animals

We travel by air infrequently, so we were quite surprised last time we took a trip by airline at how many people were traveling with their pets. We saw multiple dogs on nearly every flight we took. Many of the pets were traveling without any carriers, were leashed and simply sat at the feet of their handlers. We also noticed pet care areas in major airports, a change from our previous experiences. It isn’t just our experience. A recent Washington Post article reports that animals traveling with people is up 150 percent from 2015 and “incidents” such as biting or defecating have nearly doubled since 2016.

The airlines are caught in a bit of a bind. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 allows for free travel for “any animal” that is trained to assist a person with a disability or that provides emotional support. Translated into practice it means that anyone who wants to travel with a pet can escape the usual airline fee, which averages about $100 for an animal to travel by declaring that their pet is an emotional support animal.

And plenty of people are declaring their need for the emotional support of their animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act has more specific guidelines for defining service animals. It is specific about the type of animal, typically a dog or a miniature horse. It is also specific about the training required for a service animal. Certified service animals require 1 - 2 years of intense training and receive training in specific areas. They are trained to mitigate the disability. They possess specific disability mitigation skills such as looking for traffic, turning on light switches, and alerting for hidden dangers. They also are highly trained in public access behaviors.

There is a lot of research about which animals provide the best support for persons with physical disabilities. There is a lot of research that backs the specific screening and training received by service animals.

Beyond that, however, there has been a recent recognition of the ability for pets to provide emotional support. Emotional disabilities are challenging because they are often invisible and people don’t always recognize anxieties or fears or other emotional problems that can prevent others from fully participating in life. There is an emerging body of evidence that companion animals can provide emotional support. In general these emotional support animals have not received the intensive training of service animals. And there is a wide range of different animals that have been identified as emotional support animals. Cats, ducks, hedgehogs, parakeets and many different types of animals have been given the designation of emotional support animal.

While a service dog must be trained by a recognized training facility, there are no specific training requirements for emotional support animals. It does not even require that the owner have a diagnosed disability such as PTSD, debilitating chronic illness or neurological disorder.

There are plenty of web sites that offer free instant registration, vests and ID cards for pets advertising that it is easy to take your pet anywhere legally and without conflict.

There is, however, a definite flaw in the system. A pet has impact on more people than the owner who may have developed an emotional connection with the animal. People who are allergic to animal dander are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. An airline that allows a cat on board has to remember their legal obligation to provide safe travel to those who suffer from allergies. The problem is more difficult to manage than removing the peanut packages from flights.

When Marlin Jackson arrived at his row on a Delta flight from Atlanta to San Diego in June, the middle seat was already occupied by a man with a sizable dog on his lap. As Jackson squeezed by them to his window seat the Labrador mix lunged at his face. He was left with facial wounds that required 28 stitches and left visible scars. The dog was identified as an “emotional support animal.”

I have witnessed the positive value of animals for those who suffer from a wide variety of disabilities and disorders. I have watched highly trained animals provide necessary support in nursing homes, hospice house and an agency that provides services for persons with disabilities.

On the other hand, I suspect that there is more than a small amount of fraud when it comes to people who simply want to travel with there pets without paying a surcharge and who assume that a pet that is well behaved at home is trained to handle the stresses of airline travel. Some flyers are simply taking advantage of federal law and bringing untrained pets of many different species into crowded cabins.

The Association of Flight Attendants has given endorsement to new regulations recently issued by Delta Airlines that will require increased documentation for animals to board airplanes.

I am not opposed to animals. We felt that pets were an important part of raising our children. But it never occurred to us to take the children’s pets on an airliner. A metal tube traveling at high speed through the air with every seat occupied by a human being, narrow aisles, and limited restroom facilities is a unique environment. I’m pretty sure it would have frightened and upset the animals we had as pets. I wasn’t comfortable having our pet cats in the car unless they were inside of a carrier. They didn’t like riding in the car and a trip to the vet was an ordeal.

There are now nineteen states that have laws criminalizing passing off pets as service animals. Restrictions are being tightened because of what appears to be abuse by some pet owners.

I suspect that more than new laws, what we need is a dose of common sense. Does that little dog really enjoy being stuffed into a handbag? Is your cat really at home in a crowded airport? Does your retriever really fit in the space provided for your feet in the tourist class cabin?

We live in strange times and we see strange behavior from other people. I receive lots of emotional support from other family members. The airlines, however, require that we pay for a ticket for them to travel.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!