The US Government has decided that only dogs can be used as service animals on planes, non-human companions used for emotional support have also been banned.
It has long been a cause for friction between airlines and customers after some fliers got away with bringing them into the main hold of the plane for free by saying they are an emotional support animal.
All the flier needed was a doctor’s note, but over the years, cats, hamsters, turtles and even pigs have been taken on board planes to stay with their owners, rather than being left at home or put in the hold.
These animals could be turned away by airlines, and indeed there are some famous cases of animals being stopped from boarding flights because of safety or cleanliness concerns.
The transportation department has said that pets other than dogs being used as emotional support animals in this way have “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals”. There have also been cases of people evidently fraudulently using their pets as emotional support animals, as well as a rise in misbehaviour from the pets.
What Does The Ruling Mean?
Only dogs can be used as a service animal, and they must be trained to help a person with a physical or psychiatric disability.
Any emotional-support animals will need to be checked into the cargo hold, where a pet fee will be applicable. Veterans charities had pushed for the inclusion of psychiatric support dogs as well as physical, but it does mean that a support dog will have to be an officially recognised helper.
Owners will have to vouch for the dog’s health, behaviour and training level. Airlines will also be able to require that dogs are kept on a lead at all times, and monitored throughout the airport before boarding. There have previously been stories of dogs biting passengers when in the air.
American Airlines had previously banned creatures such as frogs, hedgehogs, goats, spiders, ‘non-household birds’, or any smelly or unclean animal from flying with them, even if classed as emotional support animals. Tusked, horned or hooved animals were also banned from flying. However, they did allow miniature horses – but this ruling has now prohibited such animals, too.
Some good news is that particular breeds of dogs are not allowed to be banned with the latest ruling, though. In 2018, Delta Air Lines banned ‘pit bull-type dogs’ from their flights, and although they are still refusing to step down over the decision, it means other companies cannot follow suit.
Emotional Support Animals Over The Years
Flirty the mini service horse is perhaps one of the most famous non-canine travellers. They are a psychological and mobility support horse, and handler Abrea said on their Instagram stories that “the service horse community will not sit still for this, and we plan to gather our resources and fight back against this” in response to the restrictions.
In 2018, an emotional support peacock was turned away from a United Airlines flight because of health concerns. Dexter even had a seat bought for him by owner Ventiko, but United said they broke rules on weight and size.
That year also saw a woman board a Frontier Airlines flight in Orlando, carrying her emotional support squirrel in a cat carrier. Unfortunately, rodents were banned at this point. But that didn’t stop the police having to escort her off the flight after she grounded it for two hours.
2016 saw an emotional support turkey board a Delta flight, which is thought to have kicked off the initially dubious reaction to what can and can’t be classed as a support animal.
Between 2016 and 2018, when rulings started to come into force, it is thought that requests for emotional support animals to be brought onto planes had increased by up to 75% for some airlines.
Will The UK Follow Suit?
Actually, the UK does not recognise emotional support animals – at all.
Only guide dogs and dogs that help people with disabilities are allowed on British flights. So, this ruling actually brings the US in line with UK regulations.
This would mean that Digby, the UK’s first guide horse, would not be allowed to fly. Likewise, in Britain, there is no formal acceptance of the need for psychological assistance dogs and support animals. Charity Dogs For Depression state:
“The UK support dog registration situation is that as yet there isn’t a way to register a psychiatric assistance/service dog or emotional support dog with the UK government and, at present, there are no clearly defined legal public access rights for psychiatric disability assistance or ES dogs.”
So, while the US ruling feels like a step back and has upset a lot of people, in the UK it has shone a light on emotional support animals in general. While there are obvious concerns regarding the safety of animals on aeroplanes (and it needs to be a rigorous process so the rules aren’t exploited), our attitude towards emotional support animals in society is behind the rest of the world.