In 2003, the Department of Transportation updated its definition of what constitutes “service animals” so that emotional support animals (ESAs) would be included. Now, according to a recent DOT announcement, the definition of a “service animal” is going to get a lot stricter starting in the first months of 2021. What happened in the meantime to make people change their minds? Well, it’s a change that’s been a long time coming, and now that it’s here the reaction seems to be mixed.
ESA owners say that the distinction between their animals and service animals isn’t enough to merit different treatment, but the other side of the argument points out that ESAs are responsible for countless incidents of biting, defecation, or other distressing behaviors.
Emotional support animals vs. service animals
why is one excluded but the other still allowed?
In the last couple of decades, the use of ESAs has risen, and so has awareness of how essential they can be. One thing that hasn’t changed much, though, is the fact that any animal can be an ESA. It could be a dog or a cat; it could also be a pig, a boa constrictor, a turkey, or a ferret. And just like the lack of requirements for species, there aren’t any requirements for training either – the main thing is that the animal has a personality that’s compatible with their owner’s.
In keeping with the informality of ESAs, the only proof that their handlers have to show at the airport is a letter provided by a mental healthcare provider, clarifying that their patient needs an ESA for a certain disability or condition. This allowed dozens of species of animals to board planes without restraints, and with almost no questions asked.
In contrast, service animals are almost exclusively dogs; very few service animals are miniature horses, but the majority will be dogs of various breeds and builds. There are also pretty well-defined requirements for training, and service animals can even be formally certified (although this is optional). As specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act, every service animal must be trained to assist its owner with a specific issue.
For example, if an individual with impaired hearing wants to get their own service animal, that animal would have to receive training in how to interpret auditory cues for its handler. Some service animals are trained at special facilities, and others are trained by their owners.
So, how do these differences play out with airline travel? The main issues have come from the fact that ESAs may or may not be trained in how to respect other peoples’ space. Passengers and airline staff alike have noticed an increasing number of unruly or even aggressive animals allowed onboard without restraints, simply because they were identified as ESAs. There have even been lawsuits filed because of what ESAs have gotten up to during a flight.
While emotional support animals and their owners are directly responsible for some of these incidents, they aren’t responsible for all of them. In the past few years, it’s gotten easier to obtain fake documents that state than an animal is an ESA, and people use this to get their pets onto planes without having to pay the extra fees or comply with crate requirements.
This has led to even more pet-related incidents than would have been caused by ESAs alone; since it was clear that this was a problem that needed correcting, the DOT decided to take firm steps to make sure this wouldn’t keep happening.
The updated regulations will be changing things for service animals as well as ESAs. Handlers of service animals will have to show two different DOT documents at the airport in addition to whatever the airline requires, and the animal will have to wear a harness unless that interferes with its job.
Since not every service animal is certified with ESA paperwork from companies like the National Service Animal Registry, it’s not required to show proof of certification; the important things are to demonstrate that the service animal is healthy, is trained to help with its handler’s specific disability, and knows how to relieve itself appropriately.
These updated regulations don’t directly pertain to making sure an animal won’t bite other passengers or bark during an hours-long flight, but they’re just about the closest airlines can get. It’s assumed that any animal with that level of training in a specific task will also know how to behave in general. With ESAs, there was no guarantee of any kind of training, and airline staff wasn’t equipped to tell the difference between fake and genuine letters from mental healthcare professionals.
Concerns were also raised by allergy sufferers at the sheer number of animals that were allowed onto planes. If someone with an ESA and someone with a potentially life-threatening allergy booked seats on the same plane, the airline wasn’t legally allowed to prevent the ESA from boarding; this left the person with severe allergies holding the short end of the stick. Admittedly, there probably isn’t a solution that could satisfy both parties 100% of the time; but this did seem like favoritism to anyone who could have their trip ruined by someone’s free-range ESA.
Very few people would claim that ESAs aren’t important for their owners’ well-being; that’s not the issue. The problem is that the presence of both real and fake ESAs on planes has snowballed to such an extent that drastic action seemed necessary. Just like with many other issues, this decision has polarized both sides of the argument to some degree.
People who rely on ESAs to function somewhat normally are alarmed at what seems like a big step backward, and those who are already on the right side of these new regulations say that clarification on what makes a service animal is key. By and large, ESAs can do exactly what they need to do with or without training; it’s just important to realize that these devoted animals may not be compatible with every situation their owners could face.