Should Emotional Support Animals Be Allowed on Planes? New Rule Says No

Airplanes might be looking a little less crowded from now on, and not just because of vacant middle seats and other COVID-19 protocols. A new regulation affects four-legged passengers — and their owners. This week, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) released their final ruling regarding having emotional support animals on airplanes as a revision to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

The new rule now recognizes emotional support animals as pets rather than service animals. The DOT now defines a service animal 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, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability."

A dog stands near social distancing floor signage as holiday travelers pass through Los Angeles International Airport on November 25, 2020, in West Hollywood, California. David McNew/Getty

So what does this mean? And what's the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not define the two as the same. Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are animals that provide just that by being in the presence of their owner, the ADA's requirements of service animals states, whereas service animals have been trained to perform a certain task or job.

The new ruling will also limit the number of service animals passengers can bring on a plane to two service animals. The ADA explains that some people might require more than one service animal to perform various tasks — as it's explained on their site, sometimes a person might need two dogs for the same task like assisting in stability while walking.

CetraPet, a tele-health platform that provides Emotional Support Animal Letters, says this decision is a move in the wrong direction for those who need their animals to soothe emotional distress.

"Eliminating emotional support animals altogether is a quick, cheap fix that disregards those who really need and use the treatment appropriately," CetraPet said in a statement Wednesday. "The DOT has chosen the easy and harmful path over the correct one."

Emotional support animals can go beyond a pet dog. In 2000, US airways kicked off a 300-pound emotional-support pig that was defecating on the plane. In 2018, United Airlines had to crack down on their guidelines regarding emotional support animals after one passenger boarded a plane with an emotional support peacock. After showing proper documentation from a mental health specialist — as was typically required — these animals were allowed onboard under the ACAA.

Service dog
A man in a wheelchair pets his service dog, a Golden Retriever, in Santa Fe, New Mexico in March 2018. Robert Alexander/Getty

The DOT says the new regulations will help to ensure the safety of passengers and crew members by allowing airlines to require that service animals are harnessed or tethered in some way onboard an aircraft.

"We understand that there have been incidents that have discredited emotional support animals and the service they provide, but those situations could be prevented by increased regulation," CetraPet said in their statement. "We think emotional support peacocks are ridiculous too."

In recent years there has been an uptick in demand for support of this kind. In 2019, The New York Timesreported that the National Service Animal Registry, a for-profit company that registers service and emotional support pets, had just 2,400 service and emotional support animals in its registry. As of December 3, there were 214,834 animals registered through their site.

The DOT's new rules will go into effect 30 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register.