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A Crackdown on Emotional Support Animals Is Coming

A Crackdown on Emotional Support Animals Is Coming
Jeff Edwards

Federal regulators are poised to tighten the regulations that apply to so-called emotional support companions on commercial flights. Airlines, consumer advocates and industry lobbyists have complained for years that current DOT rules protect pet owners at the expense of the wider flying public, but now it appears the agency will likely adopt the stricter Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of service animals.

Airplane cabins could soon become decidedly less animal-friendly. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) appears likely to approve new rules to drastically limit the situations in which airlines will be required to accommodate emotional support animals (ESA). The agency recently relaxed some requirements, in effect allowing carriers to ban animals that are “too large, too heavy, or younger than four months old.” Following a public comment period, rule makers are widely expected to adopt an official definition for service animals more closely resembling the standards as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“In 2018, over a million passengers on U.S. airlines traveled with ESAs in the cabin, and as a result, both airports and airlines have seen a sharp increase in incidents caused by ESAs,” airline industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A) wrote commending the DOT’s recent moves in a letter signed by 80 airline industry and service animal advocacy groups. “These incidents have ranged from mauling and biting to urinating and defecating—all unacceptable behaviors on an airplane. This misbehavior not only threatens the health and safety of our passengers and crew but also passengers with disabilities traveling with legitimate service animals. The transport of untrained animals through busy airports and fully booked aircraft may also put undue stress on the animals themselves. Online vendors have been all too willing to sell dubious credentials to passengers who are not disabled, helping spur the growth of fraudulent ESAs.”

Major airlines have taken steps in recent months to place greater restrictions on emotional support animals, including limiting the size, age and species of the animals, as well as requiring documentation of training and medical need. Carriers say, however, that until now federal officials have been slow to clarify exactly how much leeway airlines have in setting their own rules regarding companion animals.

According to a report this week in Quartz, the DOT plan to adopt the stricter ADA definition of a service animal will provide additional cover for airlines who deny oftentimes dubious claims that passengers’ pets are, in fact, legally protected emotional support animals. It’s believed that the proposed change to the interpretation of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) would require executive branch blessing before being instituted.

“To be clear, we are not suggesting that DOT change the existing requirements for airlines to accommodate passengers with a disability and a trained service animal,” A4A explained. “The DOT should protect the legitimate right of passengers with a disability to travel with a service animal and adopt the definition of service animal from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We thank DOT for the important work undertaken on this critical issue, recognizing that additional changes are needed to Section 382.117, and look forward to the eventual rule changes that will ensure a safer and healthier travel experience for all.”

[Featured Image: Flickr/T Sheppard]

View Comments (28)


  1. closecover

    September 12, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    As someone who suffers from severe animal allergies, I thank the great good Lord that I have lived long enough to see this blessed day come to pass.

  2. jjmoore

    September 12, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Thank God. People need to pay the fee to bring an in-cabin pet, or don’t fly – regardless of whether the dog is emotional support or not. The dog needs to be in a carrier, regardless of whether the dog is emotional support or not. If the dog is more than a certain size (cannot fit into a standard carrier), then the dog must be kenneled and put underneath the plane, regardless of whether the dog is emotional support or not. If you aren’t emotionally stable enough to be without your animal for a few hours, you shouldn’t be flying. This is the truth and how things need to be. I don’t understand why this is so difficult.

  3. pagophilus

    September 12, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    It’s a uniquely American problem. This and hub control!you have some strange ideas in that country. Why doesn’t the rest of the world use emotional support animals?

  4. jimmc66


    September 12, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    I have been traveling for several years with a service animal, who has been trained (at great expense) to monitor me and my diabetes.

    My primary carrier is United. They have been completely supportive of me and my dog. My dog has been to Europe on several occasions, as well as Japan. In all places there have been zero problems.

    Passengers often comment on the well-trained and calm nature of my dog who is clearly not a “pet” first.

    Sadly there are not any certification organizations for service animals, other than those for the blind.

  5. flying_geek

    September 12, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    As long as airlines like American are choosing to allow animals like horses on board (which in my interpretation they clearly did not HAVE to), I am not too optimistic that this will get better anytime soon.

  6. rightfred

    September 13, 2019 at 5:14 am

    I find this whole idea of ESA’s completely ridiculous. Why do American’s need them but no one else in the world. Only service animals such as guide dogs should be allowed

  7. MRM

    September 13, 2019 at 5:30 am

    About 4 years late. I despise the illegal abuse of ESA’s, and if the affliction is truly severe enough to warrant one – then go through the ADA. Period. The entitled folks that somehow think the world owes them the opportunity to do whatever they want when they fly can whine all they want – and take the bus from now on if they don’t like it. Not everyone thinks your animal is “cute”…

  8. jt12321

    September 13, 2019 at 6:20 am

    “Emotional Support” is a title used overwhelmingly by pet owners who just want to take their pets with them on a trip. Their animals are not trained and are often insufferable. This abuse of a too tolerant system resulted in the scorning actual support animals, and the people with disabilities with a legitimate need.

    Look, I get it: you have a pet, you need to take a trip, and you don’t want to leave your pet with a friend or board the animal. Well that’s the reality! That’s why my kids never got the puppy they asked for: I presented them with a choice: a pet or the numerous trips we take as a family. They chose travel.

    Ultimately the system was being abused and the highest price was paid by road warriors who have to travel constantly for work. I am happy to see this tightening of policy. It’s long-overdue.

  9. jrpallante

    September 13, 2019 at 6:48 am

    What jjmore said!

  10. edgewood49

    September 13, 2019 at 7:38 am

    I agree we need better control over support animals I have seen way too many flying that clearly not even close to being a trained support animal, if I am not mistaken there are training requirements in place. As for this being an American issue maybe the world might be a better place is more people defat with their emotions openly as we do.

  11. kathiel

    September 13, 2019 at 8:25 am

    About time! I have had enough fouled cabin air from these animals that are actually getting emotional support, not giving it.

  12. GretchenMarie

    September 13, 2019 at 8:31 am

    I so totally agree with this move to limit ESA’s on flights. I am tired of people “ooohing and awwing” over some dog that looks like a slipper, to include flight attendants. Most of these so-called ESA animals are nothing more than personal pets. People used to be able to go about their lives without dragging some poor animal around with them all the time. Leave your pet at home at in a kennel when you travel. And yes, this definitely is a uniquely American problem.

  13. wdchuck1

    September 13, 2019 at 8:32 am

    This is now totally out of control because the airlines (other than Delta) are so afraid of bad social media that they don’t have the courage to place to put a stop to this abuse.

    As a passenger, why should my SAFETY and the SAFETY of my 150+ fellow passengers be put in jeopard because of 1 person?

    In an emergency, people react badly enough – what about large animals like the Horse that started this round of comments?

    At least the horse won’t take a selfie in an emergency

    Try to evacuate a plane with confused pony, oversized dog, squealing pig or deranged goose blocking the aisles?? These are all animals that have been taken on the plane as “support” animals.

    The most ironic part of this mess is that if my laptop or my wife’s purse is not totally under the seat in front of us or in the overhead locker if we are in the bulkhead, the FA goes insane since we are breaking FAA laws – AND, if i protest loudly, I would be kicked off the plane.

    i have compassion for people who need mental mental support but is it fair for their needs to either inconvenience or jeopardize the safety of others?

  14. ksandness

    September 13, 2019 at 8:38 am

    Not only that. All of a sudden, in the past couple of years, large numbers of people can’t fly without “emotional support animals,” something that nobody did in all the other years since my first plane flight in 1967?

    I’ve only known one person who was absolutely petrified of flying, and he solved it by having two drinks in the airport bar before boarding and another on board.

    I am in complete sympathy with people who have service dogs for legitimate medical needs, but I suspect that the spike in people “needing emotional support animals” is more a matter of overgrown brats who want to bring their pet on the plane because they want to bring their pet on the plane and no one should tell them what they can or cannot do.

  15. alphaod

    September 13, 2019 at 8:45 am

    About time.

  16. instyleprincess

    September 13, 2019 at 8:49 am

    When will we regulate crying baby and seat kicking baby

  17. JenniferL

    September 13, 2019 at 12:09 pm

    Here’s a way to fix the issue of people abusing the support animal system: improve air cargo conditions for pets.

    I’m a pet owner, and I pay the fee to bring my dog onboard with me in a carrier – but i’m lucky to even have that option (my dog fits the size and weight restrictions). I think you’ll find a large chunk of pet owners who abuse this system (especially those with dogs who are 20 lbs+) do so for big reason: the thought of shipping your pet in cargo is terrifying.

    It’s hard to get a really clear understanding of how pets are shipped via cargo. Airline websites have extremely vague descriptions of this service that tells you absolutely nothing in a ‘reassuring’ way (i.e. “we treat your pets like family” – okay, what does that mean specifically in terms of travel conditions / handling / etc? it’s hard to find these details).

    We hear horror stories of pets dying from cardiac arrest in cargo simply because the were so stressed by the process. You love a pet like any other family member in many ways…and will do just about anything to keep them alive and healthy. The support animal loophole offers a way out of shipping animals in cargo, simply put.

    I understand that re-outfitting existing cargo holds to better transport live animals is likely too big of an ask. In which case, why not form a partnership with companies that specialize in pet travel, like Pet Airways or Animal Airways? Make it easier for someone to book their own flight and pet cargo on a reliable carrier in the same reservation/check out process.

    Bottom line, if pet owners were given safer, better options for pets traveling in cargo, there would be substantially less reason to cheat the system in the first place.

  18. BC Shelby

    September 13, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    …hmm I wonder if they’d let me board with my “emotional support ball python”?

    Joking aside, I also agree with the more stringent ruling, particularly those toy dogs that tend to shrilly yap up a storm at just about anything (I find them more annoying than young children and babies).

    People who smoke have to abstain until they get off the plane, out of the airport, and to an area where smoking is permitted to light up (and that’s a serious habit which is hard to break with physical withdrawal effects). Why can’t someone be without their yappy little pomeranian for a few hours for the sake of everyone else on the plane?

    Crikey, I wish our transit system, grocery stores, and restaurants would be allowed to adopt stricter rules. I remember when only fully certified and specially trained animals, like seeing eye dogs, were allowed.

  19. DCAFly

    September 13, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian…

  20. OCJohn

    September 13, 2019 at 5:37 pm

    can I bring my emotional support cheerleader to sit on my lap?

  21. MimiB22

    September 13, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    I flew Jet Blue recently and while waiting to board, I kept hear “quack, quack”. Sure enough, someone was bringing a duck on the plane as their emotional support animal. This phony support animal nonsense has gone too far. I’m totally tolerant and understand about real support animals who are well trained and necessary. I flew with a blind man and his dog once. The dog was certainly better behaved than most of the human passengers. But we’ve all flown with unruly untrained ESAs. Most are a hoax. On the other hand, we once had to ship our dog in the hold for a transatlantic move and we almost lost her. She was so traumatized from the flight, shaking uncontrollably, maybe from cold, maybe from fright, maybe from improper pressure… it took her weeks to recover. Baggage holds must be made safe for animals or don’t transport them.

  22. aristotled


    September 14, 2019 at 10:15 am

    excellent and about time! I even read recently that a passenger was taken out of FC and off the aircraft because he had an allergy to the companion dog of the person sitting next to him! ridiculous! they are real quick to tell everyone that someone on a flight has allergies to peanuts but they don’t kick the person with allergies off the plane..oh no…everyone else has to accommodate. bs, glad this is changing.

  23. Boggie Dog

    September 18, 2019 at 10:09 am

    I have no issue with legitimate service animals, such as, Seeing Eye Dogs and other animals in that class. People who have “emotional support animals” not so much. If a person can’t manage to be in public for a few hours without their animal then perhaps they do need to find other means of travel. I have a right to travel in comfort and when an animal impacts my comfort then we have an issue.

  24. IanFromHKG

    September 18, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    I remember travelling next to a dog with a a rather ineffective emotional support human. This wretched animal was clearly terrified. Its owner injected it twice with sedatives during the trip – twice (!) – and it was still a shivering heap of misery.

    We once brought in a puppy by air (in the cargo hold – Europe and Hong Kong don’t have any truck with this emotional support animal nonsense) and she was so utterly miserable on arrival that we could never bring ourselves to do it again – so when we went abroad she was cared for at home by our helper, or by friends, or went into kennels, all of which she was perfectly happy with – in fact when the kennels guy arrived she would jump into his van with her tail wagging like anything because she knew she was going to be hanging out with a pack of other dogs and well-cared-for.

    My only other comment is that I do believe that the ADA definitions of what constitute a service animal need updating, since it is currently restricted only to dogs. Many people with disabilities require other service animals – for example, quadriplegics or those with disabilities affecting fine motor skills may have a monkey (typically capuchin monkeys) that can – among other things – bring water, fetch phones, perform basic chores (operate light switches, DVD players and TVs, turn pages of a book or magazine, and so forth), and even feed and wash someone – virtually none of which can be done by dogs.

  25. IanFromHKG

    September 18, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    PS: BC Shelby asked “if they’d let me board with my “emotional support ball python””. Not sure about that, but snakes can be service animals too! I read of one case where a boa constrictor would squeeze its owner to warn of an impending seizure…

  26. meunger11

    September 19, 2019 at 11:03 am

    Wife and I proudly pay the fee to fly with our non-service animal kept in the case as required and we follow all rules both written and as instructed by Flight Crew. I don’t understand why people think it is okay to fake having a service animal to dodge a small fee. It should be considered fraud (fake service animal) and theft of services from the airline.

  27. Jose Holmes

    October 22, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    It was my first time traveling with my pet cat in delta airlines after getting my ESA letter from was another person with his emotional support dog in the cabin and he has literally no control over his pet dog. The dog tried to attack my cat, and I got scratches on my hand. The airline staff asked tried to verify the ESA letter of that person, but he had a fake ESA letter and the letter could not be verified. So, the airlines had to deboard the person along with his pet. Thankfully my ESA letter was legit and was verified by my therapist. I don’t understand why people take their pets to airlines when they have no control over them.

  28. MiscMel70

    November 22, 2019 at 7:20 am

    Don’t the airlines charge to bring a small pet? Why? If the pet can fit, in a carrier and under the seat in front of you, it should be counted as one of your personal items and allowed with no extra charge. Charging for this by airlines already milking every dime out of us makes people lie.

    Having said that, ESA’s should be limited to certain species.

    Larger animals should be placed in cargo with congress mandating that airlines retrofit planes to provide a space that is pressurized appropriately (and monitored), warm, and not inclined to freak an animal out. I haven’t had a pet since I was a child but I know they are amazing sentient beings who are family to people who own them. No one wants to give their pets to the airlines who have been proven to not treat them well.

    I won’t go as far as to say “if people can’t be without their ESA for x amount of time then don’t travel”. I don’t go a day without my anti anxiety meds so who am I to judge. To be honest, if a cute puppy could replace meds AND I had the time to care for one, I would choose a doggo in a flash.

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