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Can Emotional Support Dogs Fly? Rules & Regulations

Written by: Chris Dinesen Rogers

Last Updated on April 16, 2024 by Dogster Team

Cute young woman kisses and hugs her puppy jack russell terrier dog

Can Emotional Support Dogs Fly? Rules & Regulations

An estimated 25 million Americans have a fear of flying or aerophobia, despite the data showing no reason for being anxious about this transportation mode. Statistics show that there is only one death for every 7.9 million passenger boardings. Nevertheless, this anxiety disorder can cause severe discomfort for afflicted individuals. It begs the question of whether airlines permit emotional support animals on airplanes.

If you asked this question before December 2, 2020, we’d say yes because federal law considered emotional support animals as service animals. However, that has since changed. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) no longer gives them this status. The airlines can individually choose how to handle the matter, and most don’t allow emotional support dogs—at least, not for free. Nonetheless, there are significant nuances to this designation.

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Service vs. Psychiatric vs. Emotional Support Dogs

Let’s start with some definitions since that’s where the answer lies. A service animal, by federal regulation, is, “…dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” “Tasks” is the operative word. They may guide a blind individual or alert a deaf person to audible cues of a hazard. These dogs do things for people that they can’t do without help.

The federal definition also includes psychiatric service dogs that assist individuals with emotional or mental disabilities, such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or bipolar disorder. Airlines must accommodate people who need service or psychiatric animals. Interestingly, the updated rule also prohibits companies from barring dogs based just on their breed.

Emotional support dogs are something different. They don’t require the extensive training that other service animals must complete. Their role rests with the companionship and comfort they provide for people with mental health issues. It’s worth noting psychiatric service dogs offer similar benefits for people with anxiety disorders or phobias. The difference is an official ESA letter.

Image Credit: everymmnt, Shutterstock

Airlines and Emotional Support Dogs

Sadly, some people have abused the use of emotional support dogs, which undoubtedly prompted the DOT to revisit the issue. ESA letters are readily available online. Airlines recognize the differences between the service animals, using the federal rules as their guide. United Airlines makes these designations clear on its website. The company considers emotional support dogs as pets.

Since they don’t perform tasks, they must remain in a carrier in the seat in front of you. The airline doesn’t limit the size of your pet, but the dimensions of a suitable carrier make traveling with a large animal impossible since they wouldn’t fit.

American Airlines has similar requirements. The company also states that their team members can make a call about whether your dog qualifies as a service animal or pet. The airline clearly states that emotional support dogs are pets and not service animals. It further limits the destinations to which you can travel with your dog. Many involve local rules and regulations, mostly because of rabies concerns.

Traveling With Your Emotional Support Dog

Our impression on reading the rules is that the airlines are covering their bases, perhaps a reactionary measure to past experiences. Our advice is to ensure your pup is on their best behavior. Make sure your dog knows to be quiet on command. You can ask your vet about sedatives if you think it may be necessary. After all, the chances are your dog hasn’t flown a lot.

Your pooch should be updated on their vaccinations. Many airlines require a health certificate issued within a limited time period. You should contact the company to ensure you’re meeting all their requirements. Unlike service animals, you must pay a fee to fly with your emotional support dog, aka pet.

We recommend packing a doggie travel kit. You can pack essentials, such as treats, a collapsible water bowl, food, and your pup’s leash. You may find putting something that smells like home in your dog’s carrier may make it less stressful for you and your pet. Also, make sure to visit the designated pet area before boarding.

Obedient dachshund dog sits in blue pet carrier in public place
Image Credit: Masarik, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Many factors have converged to change the rule on flying with emotional support dogs. While airlines once considered them service animals, they are now classified as pets. You must follow these rules to travel with your pup. The best advice we can offer is to call the airline before booking your flight to determine what you must do for a hassle-free flight.

Featured Image Credit: Ovchinnikova, Shutterstock

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