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We May Just Have to Deal With Fake Support Animals on Planes

We May Just Have to Deal With Fake Support Animals on Planes
Jeff Edwards

Airlines, landlords, business owners and even state legislatures are clamping down on people who abuse legal protections for emotional support companion animals in order to bring their household pets to places where they might otherwise be denied entry, but in many cases, federal penalties for denying a legitimate support animal could make those efforts risky.

Attempts to curb the abuse of legal protections for support animals are gaining support at the state and local level, but federal rules could make denying access to emotional support companions a costly mistake if it is determined that the action violated the rights of a person with less obvious disabilities. So far, federal lawmakers and regulators appear reluctant to address the issue at all.

For years, the airline industry trade organization Airlines for America (A4A) has complained that federal protections for emotional support animals were nebulous and confusing, making it nearly impossible for airlines to set policies to ensure that passengers aren’t gaming the system. Airlines have been in the unenviable position of having to balance the consequences of erring on the side of diplomacy when it comes to calling out a potentially dubious emotional support animal claim or facing the backlash when denying boarding to animal companions.

“We’re not asking the DOT [Department of Transportation] to get off our back. In some cases, we’re asking that they increase or clarify rules and regulations, so we can improve our service,” the lobbying group said in a 2018 release. “Vague regulations create challenges for airlines to provide the travel experience our passengers expect and deserve. The DOT providing [sic] a better understanding on issues like the definition of service animals, or what they mean when they direct prompt service for disabled passengers, allows our industry the opportunity to improve. We’re not trying to charge for these things or mitigate costs. We want to have a better understanding, so we can provide better service to communities that deserve every consideration.”

The New York Times reports that state legislatures are increasingly jumping into the fray. A new law in Virginia makes it easy to prosecute websites that offer fraudulent emotional support animal certifications for a fee. Oklahoma recently passed legislation that affirms a business’ right to prohibit so-called emotional support animals. In Utah, it is now a crime to falsely represent one’s pet as a service animal or emotional support companion.

Federal officials, however, are warning that state laws will offer little protection for those who run afoul of federal laws designed to protect the rights of the disabled. Although the Americans with Disability Act protects the right to have a trained service animal, the existing laws do not offer those same protections for emotional support animals. Federal fair housing laws, on the other hand, have been interpreted to prohibit discrimination against those in need of emotional support animals. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which again trumps state and local laws, specifically prescribe that airlines not prohibit passengers from bringing certified emotional support animals on planes with them.

Airline officials say that the current murky rules harm the very passengers they were designed to help in the first place. The carriers say that not only does the upswing in questionable claims about emotional support animals’ bonafides create extra hurdles for those in need of trained service animals, but note that guide dogs have actually been attacked and harassed on planes by untrained companion animals. Unfortunately, the trend towards tightening the rules at the state level will do very little help in these circumstances.

“The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” Delta VP John Laughter said in a statement announcing tighter policies at the carrier last February. “As a leader in safety, we worked with our Advisory Board on Disability to find a solution that supports those customers with a legitimate need for these animals, while prioritizing a safe and consistent travel experience.”


[Featured Image: Shutterstock]

View Comments (39)


  1. rpezman24

    June 20, 2019 at 4:21 pm

    It takes literally no certification or training or diagnosis in most states to get the service animal badge. In fact, you can simply buy them on Amazon!!

  2. horseymike

    June 20, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    this emotional support animal thing is hogwash.

  3. KRSW

    June 20, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    This is simple — BAN THE TERM “emotional support animal.” ALL PETS are there for emotional support. There is no logical reason to bring an animal into your home, only touchy-feely emotional ones.

    EXCEPT true SERVICE animals, as clearly defined by the ADA as an animal which assists for a physical handicap. Seeing eye dogs, epilepsy detection dogs, etc.

    It’s very easy to tell the difference between the two. The latter are highly-trained, well-disciplined animals and are a pleasure to be around. You can step on their tail and they won’t bark or snap at you.

  4. closecover

    June 20, 2019 at 7:39 pm

    What about the rights of people whose disability is their allergies to pets?

  5. dval44

    June 20, 2019 at 7:51 pm

    My perspective as a reluctant rule bender:

    I don’t want to abuse the rules. I don’t want to cause harm to those with the service dogs.

    But here’s the rub: there is no reasonable alternative for my 70 lb, hypoallergenic, friendly dog.

    Can I pay for an extra seat? No.

    Can I pay a fee to bring him? No.

    There is some alternative that involves boarding him the cargo bay for a steep fee a day ahead of time or something. But given the safety incidents, extreme hassle, and possible discomfort for him, we view that as a no too.

    As soon as I said he emotionally comforts me, the doors SWUNG open. Every agent came from behind the counter to pet him. The gate agent gave us economy plus seats and asked us to board first. We paid $0 and he was comfortable and happy the whole time.

    I guess my point is that for a dog lover/owner, your only real choices are to (truly) state your dog supports your emotions, and then you can have him with you in a safe, comfortable way for a short flight, or else play the strict rules and board them in some kind of kennel in the belly of the plane for hundreds of dollars, hours of hassle, and the real possibility of harm to your loved one.

    I get the “play by the rules” statements, I really do. But I’d ask you to look at the other side too. Thanks.

  6. The_Bouncer

    June 21, 2019 at 12:09 am

    This is just another symptom of a more general malaise – society’s unwillingness to use or hear the word “no”.

  7. fotographer

    June 21, 2019 at 2:34 am

    I am bringing my emotional support wife with me … FOR FREE

  8. DCAFly

    June 21, 2019 at 8:11 am

    I can’t wait until I see Little Sebastian on my next flight.

  9. sfoeuroflyer

    June 21, 2019 at 8:18 am

    These artificial “civil rights” are completely out of hand. I fully support guide dogs for the blind. Let’s make that the limit.

  10. IBobi


    June 21, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    Get rid of the ESA phenomenon entirely.

    Make certain areas of the plane “pet friendly” and when those fill up, no more pets in that plane.

    Sometimes people have to travel with pets. And there is no way I’m putting my (slightly larger than under-the-seat-sized) dog in the cargo hold, or handing them off to unknown airline employees.

    So, just allow pets on planes. In certain areas. Until they fill up. Voila.

  11. Deslauriertracy

    June 22, 2019 at 12:59 am

    I got my esa letter from .I have my flight next week.I hope my pet will get entry on airport with my letter.I am trying to find additional documents list.

  12. Mike Rivers

    June 22, 2019 at 6:45 am

    I bought an emotional support lobster while I was in the airport in Maine. Can I take Larry on board, please? He doesn’t bark.

  13. jczinn

    June 22, 2019 at 6:51 am

    When I saw this headline in my email, I thought it was referring to an influx of people bringing on large stuffed animals. :)

  14. jybrick

    June 22, 2019 at 6:56 am

    @dval44- So I am looking at the other side. I see an entitled self-centered individual who wants EVERYONE ELSE to accommodate his wants. There is, as you admit, an option for you. But you want other people inconvenienced and possibly endangered just so you don’t have to do anything extra for the choices YOU made.

  15. Delta Hog

    June 22, 2019 at 6:56 am

    dva there is an alternative that I have exercised every single time of the thousands of times I have flown in my life. I have three dogs. The alternative is….get ready….leave them at home. If no one at home to take care of them, kennel them. Unless your flight is to move forever, in which case have someone drive them. If you are moving overseas, ship them by boat.
    There is simply no reason to have a pet on an airplane, ever.

  16. alphaod

    June 22, 2019 at 7:39 am

    I’m surprised some people haven’t tried to pass off their kids [to avoid paying for child seat] as emotional support animals.

  17. bchandler02

    June 22, 2019 at 8:26 am

    Everyone is missing the obvious solution. LEAVE THE DOG AT HOME!

    You don’t “need” to bring your pet with you, unless they are a true ADA service animal.

  18. rljan

    June 22, 2019 at 8:54 am

    If you need an emotional support animal in order to fly…… don’t fly! Animals should be in the cargo hold, except ADA defined service dogs.

  19. Ijag77

    June 22, 2019 at 9:30 am

    @dvall44 you don’t need to fly with your dog so no lying is still not ok. My sis has a 70lb lab who stays home with sitters when she travels.

  20. JoeDTW

    June 22, 2019 at 11:32 am

    I was mauled on a playground by a dog when I was six years old, and I’ve never felt comfortable around dogs since then.

    Although I try to disguise it in public settings, my heart still starts racing when a dog comes running towards me, whether I’m out jogging or at a shopping mall.

    I understand why a small percentage of people truly need to bring dogs with them – for example, people who have visual impairments, and I’m totally okay with having these dogs on airplanes.

    However, people who force me to share the confined space of an airplane with pets that they have no genuine medical reason for travelling with, even though they know bringing their dogs onto an airplane creates anxiety and stress among people like me who have been injured by dogs in the past, are INCREDIBLY mean, selfish, and cruel !!!!!!!

  21. maewest

    June 22, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    @dvall44 – your other option is to NOT bring your pet. funny, because that is the option we choose every time we travel via airplane. our pup either gets their own vacation with a friend or family member for as much as a 24 day trip, or for very short ones we have our neighbor look in on her and pay for feeding and walks. let me guess, you also paid for your hypoallergenic pet as well? so why not continue to follow the rules like 95% of other dog owners and pay for their own vacation when you vacation, too?

  22. DWMPA

    June 22, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    It is a reality that as people travel more (which is a good thing, right?) they want to – or must – travel with their pets. That is the fundamental problem that must be solved. I agree with IBobi that some airline seats should be designated for this purpose, just as many hotels designate pet-friendly rooms. With that said, under current rules, people should not game the system. Some people do. But we have an appropriately certified emotional support dog for legitimate reasons, and we have documentation to prove it. That does not relieve us of responsibility if he behaves inappropriately. And that is true of service dogs for blind or other individuals with disabilities, such as epilepsy. I have talked with numerous people with certified emotional support dogs, who would be restricted or unable to travel if not for the current rules. People or their loved ones with conditions such as heart disease, autism, Down Syndrome, PTSD, anxiety, or depression are just as entitled to accommodations as people who are blind. Does this cause inconvenience to others? Perhaps. But I remember when children with disabilities were not educated in our public schools; and when there were no cutouts or ramps in most public places. And no sign language interpreters at public events. Those accommodations and many others are now widely accepted and make our world richer and better. Acceptance of emotional support animals for those with legitimate needs will also make our world richer and better.

  23. m44

    June 22, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    The most common well behaved pets should be allowed on airplanes. There sure is room for them. Except for those pony sized dogs or birds that poop indiscriminately everywhere. Experience shows that there are human beings that should not be brought on the airplane: sometimes pax, sometime police, sometimes stewards. And certainly my cats do not make more noise then small children; and certainly they do not kick seat-back for 6 hours.
    There are countries that allow animals in stores, restaurants, cafes and even hospitals. All depends on the culture of pet owners. If they are morons without regard for hygiene and other people – maybe their pets should not bring their owners on the airplane.
    Where all those neysayers get the power to dictate what others must do?
    And if you have an allergy to pet dandruff – take care of your allergy before you blame the pets. The air in the airplane cabin is changed so many times per hour that you claim of allergy to anything is a hoax anyway.

  24. arcticflier

    June 22, 2019 at 5:22 pm


    Your options also included leaving your 70# dog at home as well as driving instead of flying.

  25. gking1

    June 23, 2019 at 12:33 am

    Good idea OBobi – or even better – if there are two flights per day make only one pet friendly.

  26. sukki007

    June 23, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    Business owners have been cowed into the aversion or unwillingness to confront ANYONE now who wants to bring a dog anywhere or for any reason. While not airplane related, just yesterday I walked into a Lowe’s store and saw a woman who had her dog perched on the outdoor furniture, standing with his (perhaps) feces-covered feet on the seat cushions, as she proceeded to get him to pose for photos. The next customer might just want to try that sofa, and could possibly be allergic to dogs. There wasn’t even a pretense that this was a service dog, or even an ESA, just another entitled person who can’t bear to leave their animal home and doesn’t give a damn about what other people think. Of course, it’s hard for stores to enforce rules when they don’t even have enough employees in the store for customers who actually need their help.

  27. chrisboote

    June 23, 2019 at 4:28 pm

    @m44 Next time I’m carried off a plane on O2 needing steroid shots to breathe – yes, this has happened – I’ll feel so much better that a self-entitled ignorant arsehole has diagnosed my allergy as just ‘a hoax’

  28. alexmyboy

    June 24, 2019 at 4:55 am

    I was at home depot and some lady had her dog in her card. just leave them at home

  29. HMO

    June 26, 2019 at 7:08 am

    A kid might weight 70#. Or a very petit SO.
    My question is: if you have a human companion, how would you make your travel plans? People tend to be hypoallergenic and friendly too

  30. skyville

    June 26, 2019 at 7:25 am

    Let’s face it. A lot of these people are trying to get out of paying for the dog to fly.

    Also people who drag their animals around are selfish. Pay for a decent pet sitter or boarding facility. I had major anxiety about flying in my twenties and got over it.

    This is a case of making the majority suffer to accommodate a small group of people who do not need their dogs with them. Recently a passenger was mauled on a Delta flight by a so called emotional support animal. Another emotional support animal gave birth to a litter of puppies in the TPA airport.

    Passengers should not face a risk by an animal when the airline has no way to ascertain the animal has extensive training. Airlines should not face lawsuits because of selfish namby pambies.

    As for people with allergies there must be a way for customers to note their allergy to dogs or cats in a reservation listing so the airline can notify them if an animal is scheduled for a certain flight. . It should be mandatory to disclose if one plans to bring a service animal when they make reservations. If the person with the animal makes a reservation after another passenger has indicated an allergy, the animal owner should list for another flight.

  31. pogonation

    June 30, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    I’m glad we don’t have this craziness in the UK. I am yet to see a non service animal in either an airport or a plane outside of USA. People here just leave their animals at home with supervision. I’m very allergic to cats so this would be a genuine issue for me on an aircraft if sat close to a cat.

    If they are going to allow it in USA (and it already seems the snowflakes have made sure of this) then they should have to pay for an extra seat at least. Presumably a dog takes up a lot of space and could encroach on other passengers space. I’m sure people would try argue that they are being discriminated against by having to pay, but ultimately if someone has a disability that prevents them flying in economy (e.g a back injury of some kind) they would have to pay extra to fly in in business.

  32. sholay

    July 1, 2019 at 5:39 am

    I am with @dval44 to some extent. I do get that there are times when you really have no option but to travel with your pet. And I agree the only viable option is that ESA BS and I am with @dval44 and I can swithc seats to seat next to his big dog, no problem.

    HOWEVER the thing I have when observing my cats. They are pretty uncomfortable when we travel in our car. I cannot even think of how stressful would be air travel for them. I get the point they can support me emotionally or my kids or my wife. But I think that would destroy them (cats) emotionally much more then they could improve anyone’s emotional health.

    In other words – afraid of flying? Your animal/pet afraids it much more. Spare yourself and your pet and take a train. Need to go to Europe? There’s little stuff here you do not have in the US. If your love your dog, I assure you you can skip Barcelona or Louvre to do a favor to your pet.


  33. ULDB65


    July 1, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    Then there was the recent article about the American Arilines Flight Attendant who complained about how she is treated, bringing her 2 ESA dogs with her when she flies for leisure. Apparently she is fine without them while working, but on leisure time, taking advantage of her free flying benefits, she “requires” them. Go figure.

  34. mhkhatc

    July 7, 2019 at 9:16 am

    I’m shocked that there isn’t a pet-designated flights throughout the day. What happens if there are passengers that are allergic to one of these animals? Who wins that battle?

    Just like hotels, they have rooms that they designate for guests with pets. This should be done with airplanes too.

  35. simpleflyer

    July 8, 2019 at 2:54 am

    Mr Edwards

    The airlines may respond by having airline-owned and trained ESA support animals (one or two such) travel on the plane, in lieu of passenger-owned animals. The argument would be that it is more feasible for them to do this than risk lawsuits on either side (passengers have sued after being injured by a so-called ESA dog).

    Support is neither therapy nor environmental navigation. It is a passive service that hasn’t even met the subjective standards of those DSA manuals put out by psychological associations. The animals are not trained to perform specific tasks for a specific person, as are seeing eye dogs) so a ‘generic’ support animal shared by the cabin would do for purpose.

    The present accepted therapies for emotional disturbance on the ground, i.e. anywhere other than an airplane, are either drugs or counselling sessions or both. A dog may listen sympathetically to one’s marital problems, but it cannot understand the nature of the precipitating situation and as such, to say it supplies therapy is like saying a dog that bites one is performing surgery.

    In other words, as much as people might love their animals, they are not medical treatment. Guide dogs for the blind are, on the other hand, actual guides – this has been proven many times.

    Enough with the madness, already.

  36. Lakeviewsteve

    July 9, 2019 at 6:03 am

    Gee the complaints posted on here are funny. Instead of hating try getting over it instead. I’m such a dog lover I love seeing people flying with their dogs. I travel by car with my dog all the time because flying these days is nasty. My dog has never flown but I’m sure he would be much better behaved then many human passengers and surly flight attendants.

  37. squeakr


    July 10, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    I’m a little confused – I thought that federal laws did not recognize emotional support animals, only animals to provide a function, like a seeing eye dog or a dog that reminds you what time to take medication that you need. So why can’t the airlines clamp down on these emotional support animals?

    And while you can’t ask what someone’s disability is,I believe you’re allowed to ask for the certification of the animal has been trained as a support animal.

  38. KimchiExpress

    July 11, 2019 at 9:11 am

    @fotographer Funny. Let’s all dress our kids up as support pets and bring them on the plane.

    My 7 year old can crawl pretty fast. And he is potty trained!

    Yes, there are a few people who actually have a need for a “support animal”. But 99% are just BS.

    I know it is inconvenient, but you can drive.

    There are kennels everywhere. If you own an animal,. you must be willing to pay for its care. It is not cheap.

  39. closecover

    July 11, 2019 at 2:54 pm


    So when chrisboote is “carried off a plane on O2 needing steroid shots to breathe” should we be telling him to “get over it”?

    With very limited exceptions, a person with a dog can always leave the dog at home (by making appropriate arrangements) when traveling on a commercial airline. A person with an allergy to pets cannot leave his or her body behind when traveling on a commercial airline.

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