Emotional Support Animals: Legitimate Mental Health Aides or Outrageous Abuse of Airline Policy?

The debate over emotional support animals (ESAs) has led to policy changes at some of the nation’s major airlines. Airlines such as United and Delta have been forced to tighten their regulations on the admittance of ESAs onboard their flights. This comes after a few recent newsworthy incidents. A Delta Airlines passenger was viciously attacked and mauled in the face by a chocolate lab-pointer mix just prior to takeoff on June 3, 2017. The 70-pound canine was traveling uncaged as an emotional support animal to the passenger seated next to the victim. More recently, footage of exotic animals such as the peacock at Newark Liberty International Airport has deepened the conversation on the legitimacy of some emotional support animals and have led to these tighter restrictions by the airlines.

So, what are emotional support animals? How are they any different than the family pet? In a recent issue of Self Magazine, writer Korin Miller delved into the issue:

Animals can relieve emotional stress “in ways that therapy and therapists can’t,” licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells SELF. “They provide love and devotion without question or consequence. Their calmness provides a ‘mindfulness’ experience for their adult partners in a way that is often more effective than isolated, personal techniques.” (https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/medical/what-do-emotional-support-animals-do-exactly/ar-BBIAhjB)

Airlines will accept ESAs whose handlers produce proof of registration and a letter from a licensed mental health professional or a healthcare professional, such a medical doctor at any primary medical care center or urgent care clinic, prescribing an emotional support animal as therapy for issues such as anxiety, depression, or a wide range of mental and emotional conditions. ESAs do not require any special training as opposed to service animals, which are specifically trained to perform certain tasks such as guiding the blind or as seizure response dogs.

Pet owners do have to pay to have to have their non-human companions onboard flights and they do have to follow certain rules for size and remain in approved carriers for the duration of the flight. ESAs and service animals do fly free with the proper documentation. Herein lies the problem, as owners have been increasingly abusing the system by producing documentation for such animals that would not legitimately qualify.