Many people love their pets like family, but some of us also rely on our dogs for therapeutic, emotional care. Unlike service dogs (that provide help for persons with physical disabilities), an emotional support dog helps individuals with emotional problems, by providing comfort and support.
On airplanes, an emotional support animal may help anxious, panic attack prone flyers remain calm.
You may not be aware that you can actually bring your dog on flights for free on U.S. airlines if he or she has the proper credentials. The Air Carrier Access Act, permits properly credentialed travelers to bring a furry friend along on your flight, in the cabin, without a carrier and free of charge. Now before you get too excited about bringing your 100-pound Great Dane bestie, there are a few important stipulations to be considered.
A current note from your doctor is required
Passengers are required to provide documentation from licensed mental health professionals that specify the nature of the dog’s specific assistance to you. There’s no wiggle room on this one. Each airline has specific rules, but all maintain that the documentation must be no more than a year old. Southwest, for example, will accept a statement on official letterhead, while United requires an authorization form be completed by your physician/counselor. Specific requirements for each airline:
Not every type of emotional support animal can always be accommodated
For example, Jetblue draws the line at animals deemed “unusual,” and might cause safety or public health concerns. Rodents, ferrets, spiders, snakes and some birds (those without pinioned or clipped wings) fall into this category.
Do your destination research!
Though this post is concerned primarily with domestic air carriers, some domestic airlines do travel to international destinations. Some countries have additional restrictions for animals, so you should make sure that you’re completely aware of their policies before you travel or you run the risk of being separated from your pet. For example, Jamaica forbids bringing dogs in at all, and other countries have lengthy quarantine periods for any inbound pets, which might make some travelers reconsider bringing an emotional support animal on vacation (emigration is a completely different ball of wax). Even Hawaii has such restrictions – dogs must have certain blood work done prior to arrival with a clean bill of health for specific numbers of days, or they can be quarantined for up to 120 days. You can do a lot of research on your own or consult with a professional pet mover who can advise you on the procedures for the country you’re planning to visit if you want to try and bring your animal on vacation.
Communicate in advance – the more notice you can give the better!
Some airlines require 48-hour advance notice before they will officially accommodate an emotional support animal, but you should plan to reach out early as soon as you know your plans. The airlines want to make sure they can accommodate you and manage the logistics of where to seat you (especially if your animal is not small or the flight is full). Now airlines can and do make exceptions, but it really makes for a more comfortable, less stressful experience for all parties if you let the airline know of your needs as far in advance as you can. Obviously, an emergency is a totally different situation and you’ll find the airlines will be as accommodating as they can.
Things to know about the on-board experience
The airlines understand emotional support animals are essential partners for travelers, but they need to not be disruptive and take up a minimum of space. That’s why there are qualifications to where you can sit on a plane with them. When traveling with an emotional support animal:
- You may not partially or completely block any aisles at all
- The animal can sit on your lap if it is the size of a lap child or smaller, under your seat or at your feet.
- You may not seat your emotional support animal in a seat (even if there is a free seat available in your row)
- You may not sit in an exit row when traveling with an emotional support animal
- You can keep your animal in a carrier provided it meets on-board size specifications
These rules keep you, your animal, the on-board crew and the other passengers safe.
Please do not be the bad apple…
The truth is that emotional support animals can be very helpful, especially for passengers suffering from extreme flight anxiety, phobias or those prone to panic attacks. But there is growing skepticism and concern among the public and the airlines as stories of completely healthy passengers looking to travel with their beloved pet for free game the system. It’s not a complicated scam – some mental health care professionals are happy to write these letters – for a fee. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the airlines may have to argue to change the rules if the existing guidelines continue to be abused.
Please reach out to us if you have any questions about traveling with your emotional support animals. You may also enjoy reading our post on how to minimize mild anxiety when flying. Happy travels!