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What You Need to Know About Flying with a Service or Emotional Support Animal

In recent years, there’s been a marked increase in emotional support animals on planes—and many of them have made headlines. Perhaps you heard about the emotional support peacock who was turned away from a United flight, or the emotional support pig who was allowed onboard but then kicked off for disruptive behavior. And then there was the emotional support hamster whose owner flushed it down an airport toilet after she wasn’t permitted to bring it aboard a Spirit flight.

Various laws protect the right of people with disabilities to fly with trained service animals or emotional support animals, but there are occasional circumstances in which airlines can deny them boarding. The Q&A below will help you discover the difference between service animals and emotional support animals, learn how you can fly with your animal, and find out your rights if you’re a fellow passenger who’s allergic to animals.

What is a service animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a fairly narrow definition of a service animal—”a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

The Air Carrier Access Act, which governs the rights of air travelers with disabilities, currently has a broader definition. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation: “Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal is any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” However, the Department of Transportation has proposed rules that would limit service animals to dogs only. (This story will be updated if these rules take effect.)

What is an emotional support animal?

In general, emotional support animals provide comfort to their owners but have not received the types of specialized training that service animals have. The U.S. Department of Justice provides the following example in the case of a person whose dog helps with anxiety attacks:

“The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog’s mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.”

Which types of service and emotional support animals are allowed on planes?

According to new guidance on service animals from the Department of Transportation, U.S. airlines will be required to accept the most common types of service animals: dogs, cats, and miniature horses. Other types of animals may also be allowed onboard, but airlines do not need to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, or spiders.

If you’re traveling internationally, keep in mind that foreign carriers flying into or out of the U.S. are only required to accept dogs, and that other countries may have different regulations for service animals. Many foreign countries also have quarantine restrictions that could affect your animal’s ability to pass through customs.

Some airlines require that service and emotional support animals be at least four months old. The animals are generally expected to travel in the passenger’s lap or on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat. Animals must be clean and well behaved.

Under what circumstances can emotional support and service animals be denied?

Aside from the species restrictions listed above, airlines can also deny boarding to animals who threaten the health or safety of other passengers, cause a disruption, are too large or heavy for the aircraft cabin to accommodate them, or will not be allowed to enter the destination country.

For safety reasons, your service or emotional support animal cannot block aisles or emergency exit rows.

What documentation is required for service and emotional support animals?

Airlines may require documentation and/or 48 hours of advance notice for emotional support or psychiatric service animals. This documentation may include a note from your mental health professional as well as the animal’s vaccination or other health records.

Passengers with physical disabilities do not need to provide advance notice that they are bringing a service animal, though an airline may ask for veterinary health or vaccination records when you check in. The airline may also ask for verbal confirmation that your animal is indeed a service animal.

If your flight is longer than eight hours, your airline may require you to submit a form stating that your service or emotional support animal won’t need to relieve itself or that it can do so in a sanitary way.

What if I’m allergic to animals?

The right of a disabled traveler to bring his or her service animal aboard a plane is protected, even if there are other passengers with allergies. Airlines cannot legally limit the number of service animals on planes or ask for advance notice, so even if you call your carrier a few days before your flight, the airline might not be able to give you an accurate estimate of how many animals will be onboard.

Your best bet is to ask the agent at your departure gate if there will be any service animals or pets on your flight, and if so, that you be seated as far away from them as possible. If you miss this step and end up next to a service animal, you can also ask the flight attendant to help you find another seat. In extreme cases, the airline may work with you to book you onto a later flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notes that most animal allergens aboard planes are carried into the cabin on passengers’ clothing, so if your allergies are severe, it’s a good idea to carry any necessary medications with you such as an inhaler or an EpiPen, regardless of whether there is a service or emotional support animal on your flight.

What if I’m scared of animals or I don’t want to sit next to one?

Notify a gate agent or flight attendant and ask to be moved to a different seat.

What is my airline’s policy regarding service and emotional support animals on planes?

Service and emotional support animals are transported without an extra charge. While all U.S. carriers must follow the same broad laws that govern the transport of service and emotional support animals, there are slight differences in policy from one airline to the next. Click on the links below to see your airline’s requirements.

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