Preparation is Key to Travel with Emotional Therapy Animal

The idea of traveling with an emotional support animal is awash in misconceptions and misinformation. Though very few people actually experience problems with a certified ESA, those who travel with them do get quite a bit of public attention. Actually, taking an emotional therapy animal on a bus, a train and even an airplane can be the first step toward making your trip an enjoyable one.

Airlines, trains and bus companies are required to train personnel in how to accommodate individuals who want to travel with a certified emotional support pet and they should do so professionally and courteously, so it’s best to approach them with the same attitude. Registered service dogs and cats are the most common support animals, and while many others are accepted by U.S. transportation companies, not all are welcome or allowed (think snakes and spiders).

Flying With an ESA: Call First

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) protects people with disabilities who travel with an ESA in the United States. The act also intends to protect airline personnel and other passengers. Anyone who anticipates traveling with an ESA should familiarize themselves with the ACAA in order to avoid problems and unanticipated events.

For example, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website, the ACAA doesn’t require an emotional dog support certification letter (or any other type of animal) — however, it does give airlines discretion to ask for a verification letter or not. Let an airline know you have an ESA when you book your flight or when you arrive to avoid surprises for everyone. And if you’re asked to provide a letter, just do so with matter-of-factness. They are certainly within their rights to ask.

If that does occur, politely ask to speak to the CRO (customer resolution officer) immediately. Every airline must employ and allow you to talk with a CRO. Then, if you meet the following requirements, you should be allowed on the plane with your animal:

  • You give a reasonable explanation of how your ESA provides support.
  • You produce a certification letter validating the animal for your particular disability.
  • The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes your mental or emotional diagnosis.

You cannot legally be charged a fee for your emotional support animal.

Many online sites incorrectly state that airlines can’t legally require you to give any prior notice of your ESA. However, the ACAA permits airlines to require 48 hours’ notice. Besides, calling before you arrive makes your life easier and keeps the situation calm for your pet. Plus, it allows airlines to be ready to take care of you and your animal, which is what they truly want to do.

How many people run into problems with traveling by air? The Department of Transportation publishes an annual report of complaints received by the DOT and/or airlines. In the latest report (2015), the total number of complaints in the category of “service animal problems” was 1,572, with 1,378 of those falling under “other disabilities,” suggesting some fuzziness in their explanation of a disability, their ability to produce a certification letter or the qualification of the disability under the ACAA (U.S. carriers only).

Traveling by bus and train with an emotional support animal is far easier. Though trains prefer you call ahead, buses welcome animals — even going so far as to say how much the animals seem to love the drive!

Tips for Traveling with an ESA

  1. Be prepared. Forearmed is forewarned, or said in a more positive way, preparation is the key to a pleasant airline experience. The U.S. DOT offers a free online version of the ACAA or call DOT at 202-366-2220 to request a copy.
  2. Know what qualifies as a service animal. The ACAA defines a service animal as “any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a qualified person with a disability; or any animal that assists qualified persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” See if your pet qualifies as an ESA here.
  3. Know which types of animals are allowed on a plane. Airlines are used to emotional support dogs and cats, but they may have to decide on others, case by case. If they’re too heavy, obviously threaten the safety of others (barking, snarling, etc.). Oh, and sorry! Snakes, reptiles, rodents, ferrets and spiders are not required to be accepted by airlines, no matter what the circumstances.
  4. If you’re going abroad, confirm everything ahead of time. The ACAA covers only U.S. carriers. Airlines based in other countries may have more stringent requirements, and the country of your destination may require all animals to be quarantined on arrival. Be aware also that most of the service-animal-related complaints are made to or about international airlines.
  5. Be courteous and patient for your pet’s health. Some animals don’t like to fly. Some people can’t help but make comments about the fact that you have Fluffy on board. (“He can’t bring that cat on the plane!”) Some flight attendants work long shifts and get grumpy. No matter what you run into, the one thing you can control is how you react to it. You don’t want your ESA affected by your behavior. Kindness and patience goes a long way.
  6. Choose a direct flight, limit your animal’s water intake and smile. Your attitude will make the whole difference in the quality of your travels for you and your emotional support animal. Contact us to learn more about qualifying for your emotional support animal certification.