Airlines No Longer Have to Accept Emotional Support Animals As Service Animals

Bonus bummer: Dogs are now the only animal recognized as service animals

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What will 2020 take from us next? The Department of Transportation just announced its final ruling on plane passengers flying with service and emotional support animals. The ruling was threefold: officially classifying emotional support animals as nothing more than pets, tightening the definition of a service animal only to include canines, and allowing airlines to cap the number of service animals brought on board to two per person.

“This final rule is intended to ensure that our air transportation system is safe for the traveling public and accessible to individuals with disabilities,” reads the Department of Transportation’s official ruling. The ruling comes after years of abuse and people taking liberties, sometimes to the extreme, declaring pets and exotic animals as emotional support or service animals.

CertaPet, an online telehealth platform that provides emotional support letter service, released a statement in response to the final ruling saying they agree that there have been incidents that have discredited emotional support animals and the services they provide, specifically calling out support peacocks as “ridiculous.” They blame a lack of regulation around the topic as a leading enabler for travelers taking advantage of the system and argue exploitative companies that cash in on people with mental health issues should be penalized.

“Providing clear guidelines for certification and vetting companies in the industry would have been simple steps to solve this challenge for all stakeholders,” they said in their statement. “Eliminating emotional support animals altogether is a quick, cheap fix that disregards those who really need and use the treatment appropriately. The DOT has chosen the easy and harmful path over the correct one. Mental health is a serious issue, and removing access to a researched and proven treatment is a disgrace.”

Jenny Hart, a travel writer who frequently travels with her Vacation Cat, Rajah (who is not registered as an emotional support or service animal), expressed a similar sentiment. “This is a blatant attack on persons with emotional disabilities—and during a time when Americans are struggling with mental health more than ever,” she told TripSavvy. “It's one thing to ‘crackdown’ to prevent people from gaming the system. It's another thing to proclaim that someone's invisible disability isn't worth accommodating.”

Hart also has beef with another part of the Department of Transportation’s final ruling—the legal definition of a service animal. According to the DOT’s final ruling, a service animal is solely defined as “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.” Specifically, this means anyone with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

Limiting a service animal's definition to just one species is sure to ruffle a few features considering the American Disabilities Act recognizes a handful of other animals capable of being trained to service humans, including miniature horses, pigs, and monkeys.

“My cat is better behaved on a plane than virtually any dog I've encountered. I've flown with him numerous times across the country, and once even had a 23-hour travel day,” argued Hart. “I'm all for requiring more regulation to prevent others from taking advantage of the system, but to suddenly say my cat—or any cat—can't be recognized as a service pet is ridiculous. The DOT is not my doctor, therapist, or veterinarian. They have no idea of his training and behavior.”

However, if you’re still hoping to bring your beloved best friend on board with you—don’t despair! The DOT’s final ruling only states that airlines are not required to recognize emotional support animals, permit dog-only service animals, or let someone fly with more than two service animals. In the end, it’s up to the airline to work out their exact policy and procedure regarding passengers flying with animals.

Certapet views this as a bright spot that they hope leads to an open doggie door. “We hope to have continued discussion with airlines as they make choices on their own company policies, and encourage them to make the right decisions.”

Until then, you can still jet set with your pet—you just won’t be privy to the perks and free fares that come with being considered a service or support animal. 

Article Sources
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  1. US Department of Transportation. "U.S. Department of Transportation Announces Final Rule on Traveling by Air With Service Animals." December 2, 2020.

  2. CertaPet. "How the New DOT Regulations Will Impact ESAs in 2021." December 18, 2020.

  3. ADA National Network. "Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals." 2014.