Airlines Can’t Say Nay

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? 

Cynthia R Stuart DO

Dr. Stuart is Board Certified in Family Medicine. Originally from Georgia, she spent most of her youth in Miami, Florida and has been a Texas resident since the early 1990s. She attended UNTHSC-Fort Worth and completed her residency at UTSW/Methodist Hospital System where she was Chief Resident in her senior year. She is an Associate Professor at UTSW and UNTHSC, participating as a preceptor for medical students and residents. She completed a two-year course at SMU Cox School of Business in Advanced Leadership that enables her to advocate for quality health care providers and local public health programs in her community. She is the head of the Credentials Committee, sits on the Medical Executive Committee and the Ethics Committee at Baylor Scott and White Hospital of Carrollton. She has appeared on numerous news and radio programs to educate the public about various health topics. Dr. Stuart has managed her private practice in Carrollton since 2005 and is now a Direct Primary Care Physician. 

  5 comments for “Airlines Can’t Say Nay

  1. Aaron Martin Levine
    August 22, 2019 at 9:18 am

    I saw on tv recently where the service dog bit other passengers. Who is responsible?
    What if someone is allergic to or anxious about being about dogs? What happens.

  2. Jesse Lee Belville,PA-C
    August 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

    If someone needs a seeing eye dog or other service animal of that type. OK.
    For emotional support, get a loved one or a teddy bear. Teddy owl stuffed animal,lions,tigers or bear. Oh my.
    Everything else is a childish indulgence and endangers others. Bull hockey puck and other derogatory thoughts.

  3. August 20, 2019 at 9:55 pm

    Just out of curiosity, what is everyone doing with patients who want you to write a letter to let them have their “service animal” admitted onto a flight?

    We have a receptionist who is wheelchair bound due to having polio in the 1950’s. She has a true service dog, which is a very regulated animal and amazingly well behaved. She is very upset at people who simply take any dog, buy a service dog vest from Amazon and try to pass it off as the same thing.

    Such fake “service animals” tend to be badly behaved.

    • R Stuart
      August 21, 2019 at 2:17 pm

      Patient states x, y, z.

      No more than that.

      Plus a reasonable charge for the letter.

  4. Pat
    August 20, 2019 at 9:49 pm

    “Neigh means neigh.”

Comments are closed.