Over the past few years, I have noticed a sharp increase in my practice in the number of requests for documentation to indicate patients require an emotional support animal. I have heard the same trend from my colleagues. With more and more animals providing emotional support, it is not unusual to see a menagerie in many public spaces, including on airline flights.
Officially, emotional support animals are animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places, and airlines are not prohibited from allowing them to board flights.
The ADA defines a service animal as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Different species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals. They go on to point out that the crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship are not considered work or tasks under the definition of a service animal. Miniature horses are included under the definition of service animal if it has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability. The rules that apply to service dogs also apply to miniature horses.
The laws protecting people who depend on service animals only apply to entities covered by the ADA. The Fair Housing Act covers service animal provisions for residential housing situations and the Air Carrier Access Act covers those who need to travel with their service animal by air. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently clarified which common service animals qualify for air transportation, stating that dogs, cats, and miniature horses shall almost always be allowed. This clarification does not mean all airlines are required to allow service miniature horses on board, but if they do not, they may be subject to a penalty. Any other animals can be accepted or denied flight on a case-by-case basis. The airlines do not face any penalties if they refuse access to other breeds of animals, some of which include snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders. I wonder if the bat aboard a recent Spirit Airlines flight from North Carolina to New Jersey was granted an exception?