Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals: Are the Rules and Policies Being Abused and Exploited?

Whether it is a white goose, a dog who used the lavatory, or Fluffy the Wonder Cat, FlyerTalk members have long suspected that a growing number of unqualified pets are being passed off as service animals or emotional support animals so that passengers may avoid paying extra charges or have their pets relegated into the cargo hold — and until there is a service similar to the fictitious Furry Family offered by WestJet Airlines, expect the grumblings to continue indefinitely.

To be clear, there are distinct differences between service animals and animals used to provide their owners “emotional support.”

The official definition of a service animal — according to the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice of the United States pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — is as follows:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.
Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does.

Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office.

Additionally, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered — unless these devices interfere with the intended work of the service animal or the disability of the individual prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

That apparently was not the case where a passenger reportedly unleashed his dog in an airport lounge in New York in 2012, allowing it to wander around freely while barking and growling — an indication that the dog was most likely not officially designated as a service animal…
…but all the airport lounge staff member of the airport lounge could do is ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, the airport lounge staff member cannot without violating federal law…

  • Ask about the nature of the disability of the person
  • Require medical documentation
  • Require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog; or
  • Ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task

…but the two permitted questions may have been more than enough in this particular case to have determined whether or not the dog was a legitimate service animal.

Even if the dog was considered a legitimate service animal, the airport lounge staff member could still have had it removed from the premises if it indeed wandered around freely while barking and growling enough to be considered out of control, as a person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless the dog is:

  1. Out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it; or
  2. Not housebroken

While not every bullet point found on the following list may apply to airlines, they do apply to such travel establishments as airport lounges and hotel properties:

  • Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility — such as an airport lounge or a hotel lobby, for example — they both should be accommodated by assigning them to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility, if it is at all possible.
  • Establishments which sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas — even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons; treated less favorably than other patrons; or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. Additionally, if a business requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.
  • If a business — such as a hotel property — normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.
  • Staff are not required to provide care or food for a service animal.

An emotional support animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit to an individual designated with a disability — such as depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks or anxiety as only a few of many examples. While only dogs — and, in a separate provision which need not be discussed here, miniature horses — can be officially designated as service animals, emotional support animals can also be cats and other animals as prescribed by a physician or other medical professional if the owner of the animal has a verifiable disability in accordance with federal law of the United States.

“My biggest US claim to fame is that I flew two rows behind the non-Babelike ‘emotional support pig’”, recalled FlyerTalk member Feliceesq. “At least 250 pounds, and they did sit in the bulkhead (with the snout in the aisle….). And no one believed me until it broke in the newspaper…”

Emotional support pig?!? Well, I suppose that is one way to bring home the bacon while avoiding to hock your valuable possessions by cutting the pork from your travel budget.

A commercial airline is permitted to require a passenger traveling with an emotional support animal provide written documentation that the animal is an emotional support animal — unlike for a service animal. A fee does not apply to service animals of passengers with disabilities — not even on airlines such as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, which are known for their proliferation of ancillary fees. Here is a list of airlines with links to their official policies pertaining to animals:

Emotional support animals are not subject to the same training requirements as service animals; nor are they required to be caged — meaning that the policies and requirements for the designation of emotional support animals are more lax than those for service animals. There have been reports of passengers who have not been officially diagnosed with a disability and have allegedly attempted to bring their animals aboard an airplane — falsely passing them off as emotional support animals.

“Give me a break,” opined FlyerTalk member Always Flyin. “This crap has to be stopped. ‘Emotional support’? If you are that emotionally fragile, stay home.”

Although that statement could be considered harsh, it is not that simple, as passengers who are officially diagnosed as disabled in some way or can provide proof that their animals were prescribed to them by a physician or other medical professional have a right to travel freely; and if they decide to travel, no one can discriminate against them.

In order to prevent discrimination by commercial airlines — based both within and outside of the United States — against passengers on the basis of physical or mental disability, the Air Carrier Access Act was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1986; and here are where complaints may be registered against an airline via the official Internet web site of the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division of the Department of Transportation of the United States…

…but despite the airlines specifically having their own rules pertaining to service animals, are passengers taking unfair advantage of the Air Carrier Access Act, as rules imposed by the federal government of the United States trump those by airlines? Are pet owners exploiting the service animal provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act so that they can take their animals to places which normally do not allow them?

“The service animal industry is a sham”, posted FlyerTalk member RacingJunkie. “There are legitimate people who need a service animal, but they are being outnumbered by people who are abusing the system. There is no test, no licensing, and no training required.”

Citing an example which tends to support what RacingJunkie posted, FlyerTalk member chollie relates that the daughter of a friend “has a very large half-wolf dog that she got classified as an ‘emotional support’ animal. She admits it was solely so the dog could fly free in the cabin with her. I’ve been around the dog. He’s big, large, never had any serious kind of training (he is not house-broken), cause a lot of problems with her former neighbors because he kept getting into their yard and killing their ducks and attacking their dogs. He pulled her halfway across a parking lot once when he took off after another dog; her wrist got caught in the leash, she was dragged, her arm was broken in two places and she hurt her back. This is a problem I have with emotional support animals – doesn’t seem that the same standards of training and behavior required from disability animals are applied to them.”

Another question is how can anyone tell whether a service animal is legitimate — especially when it is not wearing a vest or other form of identification? For example, FlyerTalk member DLFan2 recalled an experience in 2012 where a dog sporting a muzzle occupied “almost the entire space between the three seats and the bulkhead”, supposedly robbing the owner and the other two passengers in that row their legroom. No signs of disability was evident regarding the owner, who supposedly told someone that “the airline charged her no pet-in-cabin fee since he was a service animal.”

Could the dog be trained in detecting epilepsy seizures, as inferred by FlyerTalk member BobH? If no epileptic seizure had been experienced by the passenger, could it appear as though the dog is not a real service animal?

The distinction becomes even more blurry when the animal is used for “emotional support.” That topic has been contentious enough across FlyerTalk to the point where discussions have been locked by moderators — such as where a barefoot man reportedly attempted to pass off his Rottweiler as a lap child; or the question as to whether or not an “anxiety reducing dog” can be considered a service animal; or the emotional support animal provision going too far by passengers — or even a simple rant pertaining to emotional support animals in general.

Even if the dog is wearing a vest designating it as a service animal, it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not it is legitimate. You can purchase a service dog or emotional support animal kit for as little as $49.00 — cheaper than just about any airfare for the animal.

The controversy regarding emotional support animals aboard commercial aircraft was significant enough to be the subject of an article on November 15, 2013 written for The New York Times by Billy Witz, which was then discussed by FlyerTalk members.

You would think that the airlines would use this as a golden opportunity to increase revenues by stricter enforcement of their policies pertaining to emotional support animals by charging — or increasing — fees while simultaneously cracking down on passengers who attempt to transport their pets free of charge under the false guise of designating them as service dogs or emotional support animals…

…within the law, of course. Admittedly, that is not as easy as it sounds, as mentioned earlier in this article.

Let me officially state for the record that I have never had a problem with service animals — directly or indirectly. They allow passengers with certain disabilities to be able to have better peace of mind with an improved experience while traveling; and I wholeheartedly support it. Let me also state that I rarely see animals in the cabins of the aircraft where human passengers are seated while I am traveling; in fact, the complaints I have read which were posted on FlyerTalk significantly outnumber the times I have actually seen an animal aboard an airplane during a flight.

The problem I have — when it is proven, of course — is when passengers deliberately attempt to flout the rules as though they do not apply to them and bring their pets aboard commercial aircraft under the false pretense that the animals are officially designated as service animals or for emotional support to their owners…

…or — even worse, in my opinion — that a service animal implies that its owner has a disability which may not even exist. What is the difference between “faking” a service animal and pretending to be disabled to secure a prized parking spot reserved only for people officially designated with a disability?

There are options:

Is the process to officially designate animals as service dogs or to provide comfort and emotional support for their owners too easy? Do commercial airlines and other travel entities such as lodging companies have a responsibility to enforce the rules and policies?

What are your thoughts?

  1. My husband is my emotional support, and at times, he can be an animal. Always under voice control. Can he fly for free?

    1. Hmm…
      I cannot argue with your logic, Dagny T. — so I will say yes, your husband should fly for free.
      However, forgive me for not wanting to ask what you mean by your statement that “he can be an animal”, as I probably would rather not find out…

  2. I love my dogs, but I am not buying into this ’emotional support’ crap. It is obviously a ploy to get Fido to fly along and enjoy the hotel room without actually having to follow the rules or pay the price. Getting diagnosed with mild depression is about as difficult as getting a medical marijuana card for ‘back pain.’ It is impossible to disprove, so it is a very easy scam to pull. If you really love your pets, you will spare them the stress and trauma of flying and traveling around. They will never enjoy it as much as you do, and your trip will be far more of a hassle. Travel is very stressful for animals, and they couldn’t care less what city they are in. Find them a decent pet hotel or have them stay with friends. Anyone with eyes, ears, and /or a functioning brain that is even remotely aware of just how screwed up our world really is would no doubt experience moments of depression, that is just life. I have been depressed about how despicable humanity is since I was in elementary school, but doping up or dragging my dog along with me everywhere I go will not change that reality.

  3. My cousin uses the “emotional support animal” card so her pet dog can fly for free as a cabin animal, she even bought it a “don’t pet me I’m working” vest to make it more convincing.
    Personally I think that with the exception of proper service animals, no animals should be permitted in the cabin, they are areas for food service and many people have allergies to pet dander. I also the the law should be changed so that some sort of certification is required for service animals, just certification is required for disabled parking permits.

    1. Sadly, I agree with you, alex_b — there most likely needs to be a change in the law to stem the “scamming” of this policy, rather than changes implemented by commercial airlines…
      …and I do not believe that the law will change anytime soon.
      Of course, if any changes of the law were passed, I would hope that those changes would not impact in any way, shape or form those passengers for whom the laws were designed to protect.

  4. I just returned from Disney World where I witnessed the emotional support animal scam in action there, too. This couple brought their dog with them on an attraction. It was the slow-moving boat ride in Mexico at Epcot. When the dog saw the audio-animatronic figures, it started barking. Trapped in the same boat, I sat in shock for the next several minutes as the couple did absolutely nothing to try to stop the dog from barking.

  5. I definitely know some people that take advantage of the system, but with the ridiculous fees the airlines apply for a pet to fly under the seats (Delta is $125 each way…sometimes more than an actual seat) I understand it. If I flew a lot with my dog I would definitely consider it.

  6. Something must be done about this. Pets should only be allowed for “major life activities” involving “major life functions,” such as seeing-eye dogs. There must be a balancing of concerns for allergic people. The selfish people who bring pets on board that ignore this are potentially harming allergic passengers on many flights to come, as the hair and dander can stay behind for weeks, if not months and cause breathing difficulties for allergic passengers in a closed tube.

  7. “Something must be done about this”…
    Yes, that would be our Congressional Leaders. They passed the ACAA, and ADA. Up to them to tighten the law.

  8. I’m not a big fan of people making assumptions at first glance. One of the saddest things I ever saw on a plane was at the SNA airport – a very stylish woman wearing sunglasses boards the plane with her male companion (husband?) and dog. She sits in first and I am a few people later boarding, ultimately sitting in the row behind her. Another woman was very in a huff to see this woman in the front of the plane with her dog and starts going on and on about the gal sitting in first. How pets aren’t allowed in the cabin, she’s allergic to dogs, that dog shouldn’t be there unless it fit under the seat, etc. – not letting anyone get a word in edge-wise. As I passed the first row, the gal with the sunglasses/dog was sitting down and I could clearly see that behind her sunglasses she appeared to be missing at least one eye. I did not want to take a closer look at the other eye. I quickly realized the other woman was being an ass to someone who may not have appeared to need a dog at first sight and likely does.
    As soon as the woman stopped to take a breath – even before the other gals male companion (husband?) could pipe up – I felt obligated to snap at her that service animals are allowed in the cabins and if looking at it bothered her so much she could have my seat. She squawked a bit more and ultimately piped down.
    I’m not sure if it made me the most sad that the woman was so rude or that we have expectations about people with “differences” and this woman’s desire or ability to embrace what she has and still look stylish very likely led to her detriment and is part of what set the other woman off. Her elegance, patience, and grace was noteworthy though. Sadly, I got the impression this was not the first time she had encountered something like that.

    Stop making people pretend. Get over it – so what – there’s a dog next to you.
    I’ve seen many examples of dogs in the cabin – with very few falling in the support role- but rather just wanting to fly with their pet. The solution is easy. Airlines should ALLOW pets in the cabin – and charge a fee plus a deposit. Stop the debate and people time needed. The fee is simple – base it on distance – just like AA uses stickers – X dollars per 500 miles and x for the size of the dog (one floor space, two floor spaces, three floor spaces. The deposit – Double the fee – refunded in future air credit – IF the pet leaves nothing on the plane (hair or other items that come from or off the body). Sell X per flight (same as seats – when they are out just like flights – the person has to find a different flight). Allergy’s – flyers beware – not much different then peanuts, the smelly person sitting next to you, smells that waft through the cabin – that seem to be coming from the person in front of you, sitting near the Lav door, or a the food they brought on board, Service animals – FEE’S as required by law – no fee.

  10. “Something must be done about this. Pets should only be allowed for “major life activities” involving “major life functions,” such as seeing-eye dogs. There must be a balancing of concerns for allergic people. The selfish people who bring pets on board that ignore this are potentially harming allergic passengers on many flights to come, as the hair and dander can stay behind for weeks, if not months and cause breathing difficulties for allergic passengers in a closed tube.”
    The cabin is filtered. Most of the “allergies” that people have in this country are dreamed up. Go look at the data. The problem here is whiny people, not people with emotional disabilities who need to have an animal with them. A licensed therapist has to sign off on that and trust me, we don’t do it for no reason at all.
    Worry about your behavior and learn what you’re talking about before you complain.

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