Table of Contents:
- Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals
- New Rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation
- Responses to the New Rules
In recent years, uncertainty over the distinction between pets and the various types of service animals has led to much confusion and many viral moments. Who could forget the emotional support peacock who ruffled feathers on a United Airlines flight back in 2018?
With updates to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has clarified the distinction between service animals and pets. These changes are intended to protect the rights of disabled Americans, while eliminating unnecessary burden for airlines by cracking down on fraudulent claims from travelers.
Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals
Though they’re often confused for one another, emotional support animals and service animals are not the same thing. Only service animals are afforded privileges under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA identifies service animals as dogs or miniature horses who are trained to perform specific tasks to assist an individual with a disability. Guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired are perhaps the most well known, but they’re just one type of service animal. Other service animals perform tasks like:
- Assisting caretakers with mobility issues
- Alerting caretakers to oncoming medical events like panic attacks or seizures
- Moving caretakers out of harm’s way in the event of a medical emergency
- Attracting medical attention by activating an alert device
Businesses like airlines are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for disabled individuals and their service animals. This is why you’ll see service dogs in places that are typically off-limits to pets. ADA regulations hold that service animals must be kept under control at all times and that businesses can deny entry to disruptive or dangerous animals.
Emotional support and therapy animals are not typically given the same special treatment. For the ADA, the distinction comes down to the work these animals perform. Whereas service animals perform highly-specific tasks, therapy and emotional support animals offer a more generalized kind of comfort and support.
New Rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation
After fielding more than 15,000 comments from the public, the DOT announced its final changes to the ACAA on December 2nd. The updates, aimed “to ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system,” include the following changes:
- Only dogs who perform specific tasks are defined as service animals. Airlines are no longer required to accommodate rabbits, birds, miniature horses, and other registered service animals. They are, however, required to treat psychiatric service animals the same as any others and cannot deny access to a service dog based on breed or appearance.
- Airlines are officially permitted to treat emotional support animals as pets in accordance with their own established policies. This does not necessarily mean that travelers can’t fly with them, but it could present new restrictions and fees.
- Airlines are permitted to ask that passengers traveling with service animals provide DOT-approved documents certifying the animal’s fitness for travel. They can also ask that all service animals fit within the passenger’s assigned foot space.
The DOT hopes that drawing a clearer distinction between emotional support animals and service animals will reduce confusion and help minimize the number of “animal misbehavior incidents” on future flights.
For airlines like Delta and JetBlue, the new rules are already in effect. Others — Frontier and American Airlines among them — will continue to honor existing reservations for travelers with emotional support animals through the end of January.
Responses to the New Rules
Officials from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) have praised the DOT’s decision. Kenneth Mendez, the organization’s CEO and President, commented, “We’re glad to see our community heard when it comes to experiences while traveling with asthma and allergies.” Outside’s Wes Siler cheered the news as well, calling it “good for everyone” and expressing hope that airlines will soon make it easier and more affordable to travel with pets.
Disability advocates like CertaPet’s Prairie Conlon are much less pleased. Speaking to Forbes, Conlon called the rules “textbook discrimination” against disabled Americans who cannot afford certified service animals. She and like-minded individuals are hopeful that they can reach a compromise with the DOT and airlines, keeping some of the new regulations while eliminating others. She contends, for example, that only traditional domestic animals should fly with their caretakers. “Nobody is fighting for the peacock to be an [emotional support animal],” she says.