Are new rules coming for emotional support animals?

In late July, an attendant on an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Piedmont Triad International Airport was bitten by a passenger’s emotional support dog, requiring five stitches and kicking off a broader conversation about rules regarding animals in transit in the process. 

Dog relaxing on airport floor
The flight attendants' union is calling for the Department of Transportation to run a tighter ship. Image by Eva Blanco / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) condemned the event, calling what happened on the flight “completely unacceptable and inexcusable” and asking those in authority to set more stringent standards. “For years, AFA has supported the role trained animals can provide to passengers in the cabin,”  the union said in a statement, “but we have also called for action in regards to setting standards for emotional support animals. We need the Department of Transportation to take action now.”

In an interesting twist, American had just updated and tightened its policies a few months prior, after surveying customers and employees alike to set new guidelines (see below for details). But even that wasn’t enough to prevent injury. For now, US airlines are still allowing emotional support animals (ESAs) on board as long as they’re well-groomed and well-behaved, so the long-term effects of the recent biting incident remain to be seen. Many destinations have restrictions around entry, so be sure to check the fine print before you book, but here’s where things stand now for the major players.

Cat in carrier
After a bevy of badly-behaved animals took to the skies, most airlines have clamped down, limiting ESAs to dogs, cats, and the odd miniature horse. Image by Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock

Alaska Airlines

Alaska updated its policy regarding emotional support animals in May 2018, after seeing a jump in the number of animals traveling on the airline – at the time, some 150 emotional support and psychiatric service animals were boarding per day – as well as a slew of incidents that affected employees, passengers, and other service animals. "Most animals cause no problems," Ray Prentice, Alaska Airlines' director of customer advocacy, said in a press release. "However, over the last few years, we have observed a steady increase in incidents from animals who haven't been adequately trained to behave in a busy airport setting or on a plane, which has prompted us to strengthen our policy." 

The carrier now only accepts one ESA per customer per flight, and that animal must be a cat or a dog. Documentation (animal health and behavioral forms, plus a signed document from a medical doctor or mental health professional) must be submitted at least 48 hours before departure, and copies of the completed forms should be carried for the entire journey. And the animals themselves have to be under the control of their owner or handler at all times.

American Airlines

As of April 1, passengers on American are only allowed to bring one emotional support animal per person on board: a dog or a cat at least four months old that can fit by your feet, under your seat, or, if it’s smaller than a two-year-old child, on your lap. If the animal is traveling in a kennel, it has to fit under the seat in front of you—ESAs can’t occupy their own seats, stick out into the aisles, or block them in any way. (It should go without saying that they won’t be able to eat from the tray tables, but apparently, that needs to be spelt out.) 

They can’t be seated in the exit row, and the proper forms, including veterinary health forms and immunization details, must be submitted for approval at least 48 hours in advance and carried during the journey. ESAs have to be leashed or harnessed at all times, and even so, if they show any aggressive behavior that can’t be controlled, like growling, attempting to bite, or jumping on or lunging at people, they won’t be allowed in the cabin. And if your flight is longer than eight hours, you’ll have to sign an animal sanitation form asserting that your ESA “won’t need to relieve itself or can do so in a way that doesn’t create a health or sanitation issue.”

Young couple alighting from plane, man with dog
On the major American commercial airlines, dogs must be able to fit on the floor at your feet, or on your lap if they're small enough. Image by B2M Productions/Getty Images

Delta Air Lines

Delta also limits each passenger to one ESA, though none are allowed on flights longer than eight hours. Neither support animals in training nor pit bull-type dogs are permitted in the cabin, and animals that pose safety or public health concerns, like small mammals, insects and spiders, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, non-household birds, and animals with tusks, horns, or hooves, must be left at home as well. The carrier reserves the right to refuse to animals that are disruptive or aggressive, which means no growling, biting, jumping, barking excessively, relieving themselves in the gate area or cabin, and eating off seatback tray tables. 

Delta requires all animals on its flights to be up to date on their vaccinations, and documentation confirming the ESA’s health status, including rabies and DRB shot verification – no more than a year old – must be uploaded at least 48 hours before takeoff. A certified mental health professional also has to attest to your need for an ESA (including their professional license number isn’t required, but it’s a good idea). Support animals should fit on the floor beneath the seat in front of you or on your lap, without exceeding the footprint of your seat; they can also travel on your lap as long as they’re smaller than a two-year-old kid. 

JetBlue

Customers traveling on JetBlue are permitted one ESA per person; dogs, cats, and miniature horses, no hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles or animals with tusks allowed. Add the animal to your reservation by including a special service request with the online booking or calling the company to alert them to your animal’s travel, then submit documentation (a medical or mental health professional form, a veterinary health form, and a customer confirmation of animal behavior) no later than 48 hours prior to departure. You’ll need to carry it for the length of the journey in case it’s requested for review, and Fido will have to be at his best, too: Animals’ behavior will be assessed at the airport before they’re cleared to fly. 

In the cabin, your ESA has to travel on the floor – never a seat – unless it’s small enough to fit on your lap without touching your neighbors or any part of the seat itself. If your animal is too big, you can buy an extra seat or wait for a flight that has enough empty seats available. Special rules apply to Mint seating, so if you're attached to that lie-flat seat, you'll want to look into those restrictions before shelling out the extra cash.  

Dog in carry-on container
On Southwest, dogs either have to ride in a carrier that fits under the seat or be leashed at all times. Image by Robert Mooney/Getty Images

Southwest

On Southwest, passengers are allowed one dog or cat per person, and they have to travel in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of them or be leashed at all times, both in the airport and on the aircraft. Disruptive or aggressive animals who scratch, whine or bark excessively, growl, bite, lunge, or relieve themselves in the cabin or gate area may be denied boarding. Once onboard, ESAs can’t sit in the emergency exit row, and they can’t block evacuation routes in case of emergency. Pet carriers must be stowed for taxi, takeoff, and landing, so the animal has to be leashed and placed on the floor or on your lap, as long as it’s not bigger than a child under age two. ESAs can’t hang out in the aisle, on a seat, or on a tray table, and they must stay within the footprint of your seat. 

Notify the airline when you book, and provide the required documentation: a letter from your doctor or mental health professional stating that you have a disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and that you need your ESA as either an accommodation for air travel or for an activity at your destination; include your doctor’s licensing info, and that you’re under their professional care. And if your animal doesn’t qualify as an emotional support animal, don’t fret –you might still be able to bring them along as a pet, for a fee.

United Airlines

United allows one ESA per person on flights shorter than eight hours—cats and dogs only, at least four months old and weighing less than 65 pounds. They have to sit on the floor beneath the seat, without extending into the aisle or other areas that need to be kept clear to comply with safety regulations, and they’re not permitted in the exit row. Passengers can use approved in-cabin kennels for smaller animals, or keep them leashed at all times. 

Passengers traveling with ESAs must submit all documentation—a letter from a licensed medical or mental health professional, a veterinary health form with health and vaccination records, and confirmation that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting—to the Accessibility Desk at least 48 hours before takeoff. All dogs entering the US must be immunized against rabies, and proof of vaccination is required before the start of the trip.