Air Travel with Your Emotional Support Dog

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.

emotional support animals

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:

Alaska
Allegiant
American
Delta
Frontier
Jetblue
Silver
Southwest
United
Virgin America

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:

  1. You may not partially or completely block any aisles at all
  2. 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.
  3. You may not seat your emotional support animal in a seat (even if there is a free seat available in your row)
  4. You may not sit in an exit row when traveling with an emotional support animal
  5. 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!

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12 Comments

  1. I would be curious to know, as to the seating arrangements, what if you find out that one of these service animals is beside you on a flight and you are allergic to this type of animal……Who would get their seating moved, or get removed from flight…..

    1. In this sort of scenario, the airline would definitely make every effort to keep both parties comfortable. I think the airlines would take each situation on its own.

  2. Thanks for sharing these articles. You wrote very well about how you feel when you are lonely and no one can find out that feeling of loneliness. But an emotional support animal lets you feel that you are not alone and feel relaxed and comfortable.

  3. Great submission. I actually am plannin to fly with my emotional support animal. Actually i got him a letter a week back from this website my esadoctor and hoping to fly with him next month. Anyways good work.

  4. emotional support animals area different separate class from service animals. I am flying with an 8lb service animal – with a vest and proper licensing official card. Is this all that is needed for a service animal?
    Thanks, Elspeth Easton

  5. Hi, I am new to traveling with an ESA and was wondering, do i book the flight first and then reach out to the airline to let them know about my animal or do i call before i book a flight?

    1. Hi Natasha, The airlines have a limited number of animals that can be allowed on each flight. It’s a very good idea to call the airlines in advance to make sure that your needs can be accommodated.

  6. Thanks for sharing the information. But, I have a St. Bernard breed. I am not sure if it would fit under my seat. So, do I need to ask for extra seating space while flying with a dog with a larger size? Or are there some other options available for such dogs?

    1. Is your dog an emotional support animal or just a pet? If he is an emotional support dog, I would reach out direct to the airline of your choice and see what their specific policy is for large breeds.

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