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DOT getting rid of emotional support animals
Yesterday the US Department of Transportation issued a final ruling regarding emotional support animals (ESAs). The biggest implication of this ruling is that airlines no longer need to accommodate emotional support animals.
For some context, it has historically been easy to get a doctor to certify you for needing an emotional support animal. When you have this, you can take animals with you in an aircraft cabin at no cost.
There’s no doubt that this has been used outside of the spirit of the rules, and I think that’s for a couple of reasons:
- Some people have used this to avoid paying the pet transport fee on airlines
- Most airlines limit in-cabin pets to 20 pounds, so some people have used this to transport pets in the cabins of planes when they’re more than 20 pounds, in order to avoid the cruelty of putting a pet in a cargo hold
As I’ve said before, personally I have no issues with seeing new rules on this, but I really think airlines need to consider coming up with humane ways to transport pets. Those who are against this say “oh snowflakes, can’t you be without your pets for five minutes?” But what about people with senior dogs who are moving around the world? In my opinion they shouldn’t have to risk their dog’s life to do this, when there should be better options.
Offering more humane pet transport options seems like a revenue generating opportunity for airlines, and also as a way of differentiation.
Anyway, for those celebrating the end of emotional support animals, you might not want to get excited too fast. It would appear that as one opportunity closes, another one is opening up…
Psychiatric service animals replace emotional support animals
The DOT’s ruling is 122 pages, and I didn’t read all of it the first time around. However, Live and Let’s Fly picked up on a very interesting detail. For all practical purposes, it sounds like people could use psychiatric service animals in the same way that some people previously used emotional support animals.
As the DOT describes the concept of psychiatric service animals:
Psychiatric service animals are treated the same as other service animals that are individually trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.
While an emotional support animal calms its owner by its presence with no training, a psychiatric service animal is trained to provide psychiatric support to its owner.
So, how do you get your dog trained as a psychiatric service animal? Well, you can do it yourself:
It is our understanding that the vast majority of emotional support animals are dogs, and dogs can be task-trained to perform many different tasks and functions. We also note that the rule does not require service animal users to incur the cost of training by third party schools or organizations; service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.
How will people prove that they need a psychiatric service animal? They don’t need to:
Psychiatric service animal users will no longer be required to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional detailing the passenger’s need for the animal, nor will they be required to check in one hour before the check-in time for other passengers.
To recap, psychiatric service animals can be trained by their owners, and there’s no documentation required that details a passenger’s need for this. Now, airlines can require travelers to fill out the DOT service animal form. This makes you agree to certain conditions, with the following warning:
It is a Federal crime to make materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, entries, or representations knowingly and willfully on this form to secure disability accommodations provided under regulations of the United States Department of Transportation (18 U.S.C. § 1001).
What do you have to agree to? Among other things:
- That your dog is vaccinated and doesn’t have ticks or fleas
- That your dog has been trained to perform tasks to assist you with your disability
- That the dog will remain under the handler’s control for the entire flight
- That your dog has not acted aggressively towards other people or dogs
The DOT notes that it will monitor if there’s an increase in the number of psychiatric service animals:
The Department would monitor the experience of airlines in accommodating the use of psychiatric service animals, particularly given the concern that unscrupulous passengers may attempt to pass off their pets as psychiatric service animals. We indicated that we would “consider revisiting whether it is reasonable and appropriate to allow additional requirements for the use of such animals if there is a demonstrated need — for example, if there is a notable increase in instances of passengers falsely representing pets as mental-health-related service animals.
The US DOT has issued a ruling that allows airlines to no longer accept emotional support animals. It’s going to be interesting to see in which ways airlines update their policies.
In the meantime, I’m not sure this policy change will necessarily have the impact that was expected. Psychiatric service animals will still be allowed on planes. The difference between a psychiatric service animal and an emotional support animal is that the former is specially trained, though it can be trained by the owner. And there’s also no certification or paperwork required, so…
I really think it’s time that airlines actually innovate when it comes to transporting pets, because if they did, this would be much less of an issue.