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Flying with Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals and Therapy Animals

Pet Travel with a Service Animal
Service Animals

A service animal is defined as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal including cats and small horses individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with one or more physical disabilities. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for themselves.

"Seeing eye dogs" are one type of service animal, used by some individuals who are blind. This is the type of service animal with which most people are familiar. But there are service animals that assist persons with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities. Some examples include:

Alerting persons with hearing impairments to sounds.

Pulling wheelchairs or carrying and picking up things for persons with mobility impairments.

Assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance.

Alerting persons as to the onset of seizures.

Service animals fall under the protective rules as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which states that they must be permitted into any privately owned business in the United States that serves the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, and governments and private owners are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities.

Service animals that are utilizing commercial airlines for travel are also protected under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and the United States Department of Transportation (DOT).

Because they are trained to provide services that help those with physical disabilities, they may accompany the people they serve in places where other animals would not be permitted such as in the cabin of an aircraft even when they exceed normal carry-on requirements. In every case, they are elgible to fly without any charges incurred.

In certain cases, dogs, cats and even miniature horses may qualify as service animals; however, the airlines can specify that they will not permit in-cabin transport of service animals other than dogs. Additionally, there may be restrictions if the service dog is recognized as a dangerous breed.

Emotional Support or Comfort Animals

Emotional support or comfort animals are pets that provide support for their owner for mental disabilities defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. An emotional support animal (ESA) generally qualifies for protection under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) if their owner can provide certification from a treating licensed medical professional that they are being treated for a mental health disability and that it is necessary that they be accompanied by their ESA.

Research suggests that people with psychiatric disabilities can benefit significantly from comfort animals. ESAs have been proven extremely effective at addressing the symptoms of these disabilities, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, by providing therapeutic nurture and support.

Emotional support animals are not subject to training requirements as service animals are. You can find more information on what you should consider when selecting a dog to be an emotional support animal by clicking here.

Because they are protected under the ACAA, comfort animals receive the same accommodations as do service dogs on flights of US-flagged carriers and on many foreign carriers as well. The ACAA protects service and emotional support animals, and states that airlines cannot refuse to allow service or emotional support animals onboard because they make other passengers or flight crew uncomfortable. (including those with allergies)

The United States Departmont of Transportation has permitted the airlines to restrict the species of animals that they will accept as service or emotional support animals. Several airlines restrict species such as amphibians, reptiles, rodents, ferrets, goats, hedgehogs, insects, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, farm poultry, waterfowl, game birds, birds of prey, animals with tusks, horns or hooves (excluding miniature horses).

All animals providing assistance to their owners must behave properly around other people or animals. When flying, they must not impede cabin operations and their size must allow them to fly without affecting other passengers.

All owners of service and emotional support animals should notify their airline in advance that they are traveling with an assistance animal. Many airlines will require additional documentation. More information can be found regarding airline pet policies for service and emotional support animals.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are used in Animal Assisted Therapy to improve the physical, social, emotional and cognitive condition of the patient. A therapy animal is normally a dog that has been obedience trained and screened for its ability to interact favorably with humans and other animals. The primary purpose of a therapy dog is to visit people in hospitals, care homes and retirement centers who enjoy being visited by a friendly dog. They are generally handled by volunteers who both train the animals and then take them on visits.

In almost all cases, therapy animals are not afforded protection under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Service Animals in Training

Service animals being trained to assist people with disabilities are not under ADA protection until their training is complete. Some airlines such as KLM and Allegiant will accept service animals in training if they are traveling with theirr trainer and the trainer must provide a letter written on the training school's letterhead stating "the animal is training to assist a person with a disability". Animals being transported to their new owner without a trainer DO NOT qualify for ACAA protection.

Flying with a service or comfort animal

When you fly with service animals, almost all airlines will permit your service animal to fly with you in the cabin, even if your destination country requires live animals to enter in the cargo hold. Airline pet policies for US-based airlines are basically similiar because these airlines are subject to ADA, ACAA and DOT regulations.

Foreign-flagged airlines differ in their policies on ESAs. Some will only honor ESAs on flights to or from the United States (Air Canada, Lufthansa, Swiss Air for example). Others such as British Airways do not recognize ESA status on any of their flights. Other foreign carriers may also follow the ESA pet policies, but they are not obligated to do so if their flight does not involve airports in the United States.

You will need to contact the airline and confirm that they will allow your pet on your route. Always remember, however, that there are countries that mandate that your pet arrive as air cargo, including ESAs.

More current information on airline policies on emotional support animals.

Note: Passengers intending to travel to the United Kingdom with service dogs need to arrange pre-approval clearance and pay a processing fee. You will need to contact the appropriate Animal Reception Center. We would note that your assistance animal must be certified by either the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) or Assistance Dogs International (ADI). Emotional support dogs that are not recognised as assistance dogs by the above organisations will not be permitted to enter the UK in the cabin of any airline.


Some airlines may require that owners of service animals present evidence of certification of training if the animal displays unacceptable behavior. The airlines will look for physical indicators on the service animal including harnesses, vests, capes or backpacks. The markings on these items should identify the animal as a service animal. They are expected to sit at their owner's feet during the flight.

The airines are only permitted to ask those traveling with service dogs two questions:
(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability and
(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.

At a minimum, owners of comfort animals must provide a letter from a licensed physician stating that they are treating the passenger for a emotional disability or serious health concern (heart failure, seizures, etc.) and their patient would suffer if it not were the company of their pet. License information is always required and the airlines will verify this information.

Additionally, several major US-based airlines are requiring behavioral, sanitation, veterinary health and liability forms to be completed and submitted at their websites.

Comfort animals are expected to be socialized and to behave appropriately in close accommodations with passengers and other pets. They cannot impede or interfere with cabin operations. They are permitted to sit on their owner's laps unless they impede on other passenger's use of seat amenities. They are not permitted on arm rests or tray tables.

We offer a document that fully explains the rules regarding air pet travel with Service and Emotional Support Animal. It also explains the rules for taking an Service or Emotional Support Animal into a rabies free country such as the UK or Hawaii.

Pet Travel Comfort Animals
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