• Dr. Rhesa Houston

Important Factors to Consider for Assistance Animals in Airports and Flying on Airplanes


If you’ve ever flown on an airplane and noticed an animal on board, it’s not as uncommon as you may think. It’s important to understand airline regulations for accommodating service and emotional support animals (ESAs), especially for holiday travel this time of year. The United States Board of Transportation protects the rights of individuals with service animals and ESAs by allowing them in air travel on any domestic flight. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), these animals can provide assistance to their handlers in airports and on board an airplane.


This topic has been popular recently with several news reports citing unique animals boarding planes, from turkeys to hogs to peacocks. This article discusses a 70 pound pot-bellied pig that recently flew with his handler on a flight. Service animals and ESAs are allowed on airplanes because their handlers need their emotional support or service animal for a specific disability. But not all animals are allowed in an airport or on an airplane. Emotional support animals and service animals are not pets, and you shouldn’t endorse your animal as a service dog or ESA without a prescription from a psychiatrist or physician. Individuals need to follow a certain process to obtain an ESA or a service dog for disability.


The airline industry has been cracking down on passengers flying with assistance animals, and they should! There are many considerations when animals are in public airports, especially when animals accompany their owner in the air cabin. For airlines, it’s especially important to know how to accommodate air travelers who need service animals or ESAs. Some of those considerations are water bowls, designated areas for relief, a basic emergency plan of action for traveling assistance animals and an assistance animal contingency plan if the handler becomes incapacitated. Read more below, and contact Assistance Animals Consulting for evaluations and consultations about service animals and ESAs.


1. There’s a difference between service animals, emotional support animals and pets. A service animal is a dog or miniature horse trained to perform tasks benefitting an individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. ESAs may be any species but must be supported by a qualified physician, psychiatrist or other mental health professional for a disability-related need. However, certain types of animals may work better as ESAs than others. Consult our licensed veterinarians for more information on obtaining an emotional support animal. ESAs and service animals are not pets. We’ve witnessed many pets being misrepresented as service animals and ESAs, and we advocate for the individuals who actually need to bring their assistance animals in public.


2. ESAs and service animals should have specific behavior and health documentation from licensed veterinarians to enter airports and travel on airplanes. Documentations and certifications purchased for assistance animals online only should be completely discontinued. Handlers should be wary of these services that produce harnesses embroidered with “emotional support” or “service dog” and advertise approval letters. Many airlines require a veterinary health form for ESAs and service animals and documentation from a certified mental health professional for ESAs. Check the airline’s service and support animal policies on their website when you purchase your ticket.


3. With the constant influx of travelers, animals need a health evaluation to prevent spread of diseases and germs. Zoonotic diseases are commonly spread through direct contact with an infected animal’s saliva, blood, urine, mucus, feces or other body fluids. They can also be contracted from indirect contact with objects and surfaces that have been contaminated. Zoonotic diseases have been labeled a public health threat by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Airlines should take this seriously. Veterinarians like us can perform a health evaluation for assistance animals to ensure they’re healthy before they are in public areas.


4. Understand precautions handlers and flight attendants should take to accommodate animals on an airplane. Handlers and flight attendants should be trained to recognize non-verbal signs of a stressed, fearful or anxious service animal for their safety and the public’s safety. Inappropriate service dog behavior such as aggression or barking (not related to the health of the handler) can occur when a service dog is under emotional duress. If a service dog is showing aggression or inappropriate behavior, flight attendants need basic training for handling these situations. Recognizing these signs early and making corrections can make a huge difference for the safety of the animal, handler and the public.


5. Assistance animals should be trained before interacting with the general public. It’s easy for most veterinarians to spot animals that haven’t been trained. The general public often do not have the experience or training to recognize animals that have not had good behavior training. Service animals and ESAs need the right behavioral training for the well-being and safety of their handlers and others.


6. Airline employees need to receive training on appropriate animal behaviors. If an animal is being disruptive, employees should know how to take immediate action and what that process looks like. This knowledge helps spot inappropriate animal behavior and also helps keep other passengers safe.


Veterinarians need to be at the center of these regulations to help create effective policies and processes in a field that is fairly unregulated. Bringing awareness to animal-assisted therapy through regulations will help provide protection to individuals and businesses. We partner with organizations to guide human-animal intervention health and safety strategies.


If you have an assistance animal and want to ensure you’re providing the best care for your animal, ask Assistance Animals Consulting. Our licensed veterinarians meet with you to determine your needs and help support human-animal teams. You can also receive evaluations from licensed veterinarians who specialize in animal-assisted health care and preventive care recommendations to ensure your animal meets proper health care standards.


Consider us your paw partners for anything related to animal-assisted therapy. As you make holiday flight plans, check with your airline to learn about their requirements. Our goal is to help advocate for those who need assistance animals every day. Don’t be shy — contact us to speak with our veterinary experts!

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