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Service and Emotional Support Animals and DOT Policy

Service and Emotional Support Animals and DOT Policy

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In late January 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) proposed a new policy for transportation of service and emotional support animals.  As would be expected, many people are in favor of the changes and others oppose them.  Let us take a few minutes to explore the proposed policy changes and the issued involved that have led to them.  There is a great deal of confusion as to what constitutes a service animal and emotional support animals.  We will start by clarifying who are service animals and emotional support animals.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are dogs that are trained and perform tasks for one individual.  Miniature horses may be service animals as well.  The Air Carrier Access Act uses a broader definition of service animals.  In addition to dogs and miniature horses, pigs and monkeys may be service animals.

Service animals are trained to perform one or more specific tasks for one person who has a disability.  Most of us have seen a service dog at work.  The dog might have been guiding a seeing impaired person or picking up a dropped item for an individual who uses a wheelchair.  Other dogs may alert a hearing impaired individual to a doorbell, smoke detector alarm, or other sounds.  It is important to note that service dogs receive basic obedience training in addition to learning tasks that are unique to the individual they are assisting.  The dog needs to stay focused on their “job” so it is important not to approach, verbally distract, or try to pet a service dog while they are working.  

Service animals have the legal right to enter places where animals are not usually allowed, including restaurants and grocery stores.  They have the legal right to live in facilities that have a no pet policy.  Service dogs are allowed to accompany their person on public transportation such as subways, buses, and trains.  Service animals ride in the cabin of airplanes because they must be available to assist their person as needed and because it is the law.

Emotional support animals provide comfort and therapeutic benefit to a specific individual.  Support animals are not pets.  Dogs and cats may be emotional support animals.  Other species that may be support animals include:  rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, and domestic rats.  Some people have claimed that their exotic animals, such as squirrels, snakes, lizards, and even a peacock are emotional support animals.  Basically, a person may claim that any animal is their emotional support animal.   However, airlines do not have to accept exotics as emotional support animals.

Emotional support animals are not service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  However, they do have some legal rights.  They are authorized to live in facilities that have a no pet policy and they may travel in the cabin of aircraft with their owner.  Emotional support animals do not have the right to enter public places where animals are not permitted such as restaurants.

Emotional support animals must be deemed necessary for treatment of the individual.  They are prescribed by a medical professional, generally in the form of a letter.  There are numerous cases where a person under mental health treatment would benefit by having an emotional support animal.  Unfortunately, many people who do not require an animal for their mental or emotional wellbeing go on-line and, for a fee, are “treated” by a medical professional and obtain a letter attesting to the person’s need for an emotional support animal.   Sometimes the person wants their pet to fly in the cabin with them to avoid paying a pet transport fee to the airline.  Sometimes it is because the pet is part of the family and they want them nearby, even when flying.

Emotional support animals are not required to have any specific training.   As a result, some emotional support dogs lack basic obedience skills and display bad behavior in public places.   Not only is bad behavior annoying to other people, but bad behavior may present a health or safety issue.  Regrettably, some individuals let their support animals wander the aisle.  At times, support animals have urinated or defecated on the plane and flight attendants were left to clean up the mess.  Support animals have growled at or attempted to attack people or other animals, including service dogs.  In one case in February 2018, a child was bitten by an emotional support dog on a plane in Arizona.

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Current DOT policy requires airlines to allow passengers to fly with their service and emotional support animals.  After numerous complaints, mostly about emotional support animals, DOT has proposed new rules that would apply to both service animals and emotional support animals.  Significant changes are included under DOT’s proposed policy.  Only dogs would be recognized as service animals.  Airlines could limit a person to two service animals and require them to check in earlier than other passengers.  It would no longer be mandatory for emotional support animals to ride in airplane cabins.  Each airline would decide if they will accept emotional support animals in cabins and which species.  The public has sixty days to comment on DOT’s proposed changes.  As a result, it will be several months before we know what changes will be made.  But it is likely that big changes are coming.     

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