Should DOT Regulate ‘Emotional Support Animals’?

More people are bringing untrained pets into public for “emotional support,” but it’s leading to problems and more calls for regulation.

A flight attendants union is calling on the Department of Transportation (DOT) to start regulating the presence of animals on flights because of a rapidly growing number of problems and dangers they pose.

A national survey released last month by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) says a growing preponderance of illegitimate service animals are posing numerous risks to both passengers and flight attendants when they are brought on flights and then start causing problems. The union is asking DOT to create “common sense, consistent standards for airlines to follow with respect to bringing animals on board flights.”

What Constitutes an “Emotional Support Animal”?

The problem the AFA outlines in its press release is that people have begun abusing the concept of what constitutes an “emotional support animal” to basically mean anything that the passenger decides s/he wants it to be. Consequently, in addition to your standard fare of dogs and cats, people are now often bringing household birds (parrot, finch, etc.), rodents (hamster, guinea pig, etc.), pigs, reptiles, and non-household birds onto planes. Even squirrels have been brought on board in the name of “emotional support” as happened in Orlando recently. In that incident, everyone on board was forced to deplane after the woman refused to leave the plane so the police could come and take her away.

As far as the law goes, it says that airline carriers are under no obligation to accept “certain unusual service animals (e.g., snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders) as service animals in the cabin” and that any other animal used for “emotional support” needs to have current documentation (from within the past year) along with a doctor’s note on official letterhead showing the patient has “a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Health Hazards and Dangers

As you can imagine, bringing untrained animals into a very crowded, small space full of people is creating all sorts of problems. The AFA outlined some of the things flight attendants have run into in its survey results.

Over 98% of survey respondents, all of whom were flight attendants, had worked on a flight with at least one animal on board in the last two years. These are just some of the examples respondents said they have had to deal with:

  • 53% of reported disruptions included aggressive or threatening behavior from the animal. Examples were dogs snapping at flight attendants’ heels or even biting them when delivering drinks.
  • 43% of the disruptions included animals failing to fit in the designated space, roaming about the cabin, and barking consistently throughout the flight. One bird was lost in the cabin for 45 minutes, one dog was in the aisle of the aircraft the entire flight, blocking the path of egress.
  • 26% of the disruptions included emotional support animals defecating or urinating in the cabin. “The passengers put pee pads down like it was a pet store for it to go to the bathroom,” said one respondent. Another indicated an animal had extreme diarrhea on its owner’s lap in the center seat. “Both passengers on either side, as well as seat backs were covered.”
  • 13% reported the disruptions included passenger on passenger conflicts related to the presence and/or behavior of an emotional support animal. According to one survey, “a teenager seated between two emotional support animals had an allergic reaction and was placed on oxygen.”
  • In the ultimate height of irony, one report said that a flight attendant had to page for a vet because a passenger’s dog was having a breathing problem. A nurse who was onboard assisted and advised the owner to hold tightly onto the dog and talk to the “emotional support animal” because it was having an anxiety attack. Who’s emotionally supporting who here?

Airlines Cracking Down

Is more regulation from the government the answer to these problems such as what AFA is calling for? Almost 2 out of 3 (64%) responding flight attendants in the AFA survey did not believe that individual airline emotional support animal policies and procedures are effective in supporting a safe and equitable policy for all passengers in the cabin.

Another option is for airlines to start making their own rules, something which has already started to happen because of the growing number of problems caused by the abuse of the concept of “emotional support animals” is posing for flights and other travelers.

Earlier this year, Delta said it was “taking steps to further protect its customers, employees and service and support animals by implementing advance documentation requirements for those animals.” Delta says the number of animal related incidents on its flights has grown 84% since 2016.

The changes Delta implemented that went into effect on March 1 require that all customers traveling with a service or support animal show proof of health or vaccinations 48 hours in advance.

In addition to the current requirement of a letter prepared and signed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, those with psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals will also need to provide a signed document confirming that their animal can behave to prevent untrained, sometimes aggressive household pets from traveling without a kennel in the cabin.

Delta said it was also setting up a Service Animal Support Desk for customers traveling with service and support animals that will verify that the proper documentation is received and to confirm the customer’s reservation to travel with the animal, prior to arrival at the airport.

Delta said the new measures are intended to help ensure that those customers traveling with a trained service or support animal, who are permitted to have the animal in the flight cabin by law, will no longer be at risk of untrained pets attacking their working animal, as has previously been reported.

“…untrained animals that have been misidentified as service and support animals are regularly reported to occupy seats, stretch across the aisles and move throughout the cabin during flight, often without restriction,” wrote Delta in its press release. This coincides with many of the reports from the AFA survey.

Doing Damage to Legitimate Service Animals

One repercussion of this increasing trend to carry pets anywhere and everywhere, be it flights, restaurants, grocery stores or even cruise ships by calling them “emotional support” or “service animals”, even when they clearly are not trained as such, is that it does a disservice to legitimate service animals and the people that rely on them.

Indeed, nearly 20% of responding flight attendants in the AFA survey had seen travelers express a bias against passengers traveling with service animals because they assume all declared service or emotional support animals are bogus.

Hurting People with Disabilities

The Mercury News told the story of Jackie Panos, a California woman who is legally blind and has a service dog, who said that she is seeing an uptick in the false designations of service animals after having had several run-ins with them.

On more than one occasion, she said dogs wearing vests that identified them as service dogs charged at her golden retriever because they were not properly trained. She said she has become uncomfortable going out on her own because of the problem and has begun traveling with another person to avoid problems such as these.

Some states and localities are starting to pass laws to deal with the growing problem. 21 states have passed laws recently to crack down on people bringing their pets into restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters and other public places.

A quick search on returned numerous results for vests, leashes, collars, etc. which said “service dog” or something similar that anyone could buy and put onto a pet. It’s a small wonder then that the problem is becoming so widespread.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.