Emotional Support Animals Might Get Kicked Off Flights (Thanks to Snakes and Llamas)

Amy Capetta
Emotional support animals can ease the stress of flying.
Emotional support animals can ease the stress of flying. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you’ve flown on a commercial flight where a passenger was sitting next to his beloved snake or marmoset, you won’t be surprised to learn that the Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has created an Access Advisory Committee to create a compromise around the definition of comfort animals.

According to a report from USA Today, airlines are looking to restrict emotional support animals (ESA) from traveling alongside their companion. The only pets that will be allowed in the cabin would be service animals, meaning those that perform tasks for individuals with a disability (e.g., guiding someone who is blind, alerting someone who is deaf, pulling a wheelchair), which include dogs and miniature horses (yes, you’ve read that correctly), according to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The reason: Airline and federal officials believe many frequent fliers are passing off their pet as a comfort animal to avoid paying the extra cargo fee.

“In terms of air travel, emotional support animals are animals that are used for the treatment of mental disorders,” says Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and a columnist for Psychology Today whose articles focus on the complex psychology of our interactions with other species.

He explains that in order to qualify for an ESA, an owner must be under treatment for disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, which can include anxiety disorders like panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Unlike service animals, which must be trained for a specific function, ESAs can simply be pets that relieve the patient’s anxiety,” Herzog says.

And while federal law has established that service animals can only be dogs or miniature horses, “ESAs can be any species — even snakes, llamas, and hamsters,” he continues. “For example, there are excellent studies showing that guinea pigs can lower stress in autistic children in classroom situations. However, many of the claims made for the use of animals in therapy (for example, dolphin therapy) have not been supported by high-quality clinical trials.”

Herzog adds that there are also a limited number of controlled studies regarding the effectiveness of ESAs. “And I don’t know of any studies that have examined the therapeutic impact of ESAs on airline passengers, let alone animals such as turtles, monkeys, and lizards,” he says.

Currently, people who want to take their ESA on a commercial flight must provide a letter from their doctor or certified mental health professional. But, Herzog points out, certain websites offer fake identification papers for ESAs and service animals, as well as fake medical letters.

“I see ESAs in airports all the time, and I recently saw a woman with clearly fake ESA identification papers for her dog talk her way onto a plane — even though she admitted to the gate attendant that she did not have the required letter from her doctor,” he says.

In fact, Herzog adds, sniffing out the frauds is extremely challenging.

“Establishing effective ways to separate real from fake support and service animals is nearly impossible under the law, as there are three different federal agencies that regulate service and support animals,” he explains. “These regulations conflict with each other. Further, the public is divided on this issue.”

He feels the most obvious solution would be to limit ESAs to dogs.

“A more restrictive measure would be to apply the same criteria to ESAs as the Feds apply to psychiatric service animals under the Americans With Disabilities Act,” Herzog concludes. “That is requiring that the animal be trained to serve a specific function. Unfortunately, the act does not have any teeth, as the owner of a service animal does not have to provide any proof that the animal has been trained in order for the animal to have access to public places, such as restaurants.”

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