Service Animals Versus Emotional Support Animals: Your Comments Requested by the Department of Transportation

Shih tzu stinky face

If you have wanted to officially voice your thoughts to the federal government of the United States pertaining to service animals versus emotional support animals traveling aboard airplanes with their owners, your opportunity has arrived — but you only have until Thursday, January 21, 2016 at 11:59 in the evening Eastern Standard Time to do so.

Your Comments Requested by the Department of Transportation

“Additionally, since the issuance of the 2008 final rule, the Department has become aware of other difficulties individuals with disabilities are having in accessing the air travel system. For example, airlines and disability organizations have raised concerns with the Department of passengers falsely claiming that their pets are service animals. These groups have also pointed out the inconsistency between the Department of Justice definition of a service animal and the Department of Transportation’s definition of a service animal.”

Although the request for input from you pertains to the concern for the overall experience of accommodating air travelers with disabilities, the paragraph shown above caught my eye.

The Department of Transportation of the United States is currently seeking your input pertaining to exploring the feasibility of conducting a “negotiated rulemaking” — which includes the hiring of a convener to speak with parties who are interested — in addressing the following issues:

  • Ensure that the same in-flight entertainment available to all passengers is accessible to passengers with disabilities
  • Provide individuals dependent on in-flight medical oxygen greater access to air travel consistent with federal safety and security requirements
  • Address the feasibility of accessible lavatories aboard new aircraft with a single aisle
  • Address whether premium economy is a different class of service from standard economy as airlines are required to provide seating accommodations to passengers with disabilities within the same class of service
  • Require airlines to report annually to the Department of Transportation the number of requests for disability assistance they receive and the time period within which wheelchair assistance is provided to passengers with disabilities
  • Determine the appropriate definition of a service animal
  • Establish safeguards to reduce the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets will be able to falsely claim that their pets are service animals

The interested parties may include but not be limited to the following:

  • Disability advocacy organizations
  • Commercial airlines
  • Airports
  • Airline vendors providing wheelchair assistance
  • Aircraft manufacturers
  • Manufacturers of in-flight entertainment systems
  • Movie studios
  • Providers of content for in-flight entertainment systems
  • Service animal training organizations
  • Other agencies of the federal government of the United States which have a regulatory interest in these issues — such as
    • The Department of Justice
    • The Federal Communications Commission
    • The United States Access Board

Air Carrier Access Act — and Possible Fraud

In order to prevent discrimination by commercial airlines — based both within and outside of the United States — against passengers on the basis of physical or mental disability, the Air Carrier Access Act was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1986; and here are where complaints may be registered against an airline via the official Internet web site of the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division of the Department of Transportation of the United States…

…but despite the airlines specifically having their own rules pertaining to service animals, are passengers taking unfair advantage of the Air Carrier Access Act, as rules imposed by the federal government of the United States trump those by airlines? Are pet owners exploiting the service animal provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act so that they can take their animals to places which normally do not allow them? How can anyone tell whether a service animal is legitimate — especially when it is not wearing a vest or other form of identification?

The distinction becomes even more blurry when the animal is used for “emotional support.” Although a dog wears a vest which designates it as a service animal, it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not it is legitimate. You can purchase a service dog or emotional support animal kit for as little as $49.00 — cheaper than just about any airfare for the animal.

For example — after spending hundreds of dollars in fees to travel with a small dog via commercial airplane — the mother of a confessor suggested the idea of passing the pet off as an “emotional support dog.” One note from a doctor and a phony certification is all it took for the dog to travel for free under the guise of an emotional support animal — and possibly committing fraud in the process.

On the other hand, there have been stories of legitimate service dogs being denied boarding of an airplane by employees of an airline. Consider the case of Axel — a heroic service dog who saved the life of a Marine and had been named Service Dog of the Year during a nationally televised gala at the Beverly Hilton —was denied permission to accompany Captain Jason Haag as they were about to board the airplane for home.

It is important to reiterate that there are distinct differences between service animals and animals used to provide their owners “emotional support.” Those distinctions are listed below.

Service Animals

The official definition of a service animal — according to the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice of the United States pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — is as follows:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office.

Additionally, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered — unless these devices interfere with the intended work of the service animal or the disability of the individual prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

Unfortunately, only two questions may be asked by employees of an airline — or of any other company, for that matter:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, an employee of an airline or other company cannot do the following actions without violating federal law:

  • Ask about the nature of the disability of the person
  • Require medical documentation
  • Require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog; or
  • Ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task

…but the two permitted questions may be more than enough in some cases to have determined whether or not a dog is a legitimate service animal.

Even if a dog is considered a legitimate service animal, an employee of an airline or other company could still have it removed from the premises if the dog is considered:

  1. Out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it; or
  2. Not housebroken

While not every bullet point found on the following list may apply to airlines, they do apply to such travel establishments as airport lounges and hotel properties:

  • Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility — such as an airport lounge or a hotel lobby, for example — they both should be accommodated by assigning them to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility, if it is at all possible.
  • Establishments which sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas — even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons; treated less favorably than other patrons; or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. Additionally, if a business requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.
  • If a business — such as a hotel property — normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.
  • Staff are not required to provide care or food for a service animal.

Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit to an individual designated with a disability — such as depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks or anxiety as only a few of many examples. While only dogs — and, in a separate provision which need not be discussed here, miniature horses — can be officially designated as service animals, emotional support animals can also be cats and other animals as prescribed by a physician or other medical professional if the owner of the animal has a verifiable disability in accordance with federal law of the United States.

A commercial airline is permitted to require a passenger traveling with an emotional support animal provide written documentation that the animal is an emotional support animal — unlike for a service animal. A fee does not apply to service animals of passengers with disabilities — not even on airlines such as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, which are known for their proliferation of ancillary fees. Here is a list of airlines based in the United States and Canada with links to their official policies pertaining to animals:

Emotional support animals are not subject to the same training requirements as service animals; nor are they required to be caged — meaning that the policies and requirements for the designation of emotional support animals are more lax than those for service animals. There have been reports of passengers who have not been officially diagnosed with a disability and have allegedly attempted to bring their animals aboard an airplane — falsely passing them off as emotional support animals.

Although that statement could be considered harsh, it is not that simple, as passengers who are officially diagnosed as disabled in some way or can provide proof that their animals were prescribed to them by a physician or other medical professional have a right to travel freely; and if they decide to travel, no one can discriminate against them.


There are passengers who deliberately attempt to flout the rules as though they do not apply to them and bring their pets aboard commercial aircraft under the false pretense that the animals are officially designated as service animals or for emotional support to their owners…

…or — even worse — that a service animal implies that its owner has a disability which may not even exist. What is the difference between “faking” a service animal and pretending to be disabled to secure a prized parking spot reserved only for people officially designated with a disability?

There are options:

  • Check the animal as per the rules of the airline; although some passengers would be hesitant to do so after hearing about pets which die in the cargo hold
  • Purchase a seat for the animal, if the airline allows it
  • Leave the animal at home

If you are opposed to fraudulent behavior — regardless of whether it is on the part of an employee of an airline or the passenger — pertaining to service animals versus emotional support animals, then this is an opportunity for your voice to be heard.

Photograph ©2006 by B. Cohen.


  1. KevinS says

    A one time Jake with feathers ain’t an emotional support critter. My state, Missouri, doesn’t allow the ‘adoption’ of wild animals or reptiles unless you have permission.

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