Why Are Airlines Suddenly Cracking Down on Support Animals?

You may have noticed the recent uproar in the news over airlines cracking down on support animals. We dug into the cause behind the recent rule changes that have been handed down by some of the biggest US Airlines–and the story is actually a little more complicated than you might think.

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The recent saga started with a peacock. At the beginning of February, someone tried to board a united flight with a peacock–yes, a peacock. They were not allowed to board. The owner of the peacock, named Dexter. The owner claimed that Dexter is an “emotional support animal”, which is a classification that many animals have for the therapeutic role they play for their owners.

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Federal law states that service animals must be allowed to accompany their owners on flights. This law was passed to protect handicapped passengers, no matter their specific disability. This means emotional support animals cannot be turned away–as emotional support is a legitimate reason for many handicapped people to have an animal companion.

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Enter Dexter’s failure to achieve lift-off. Over the years, pet parents with their dogs, cats, lizards, mini-pigs, etc. have slowly begun to take advantage of this rule in order to avoid fees, the logistics of ground transportation, or pet sitting by bringing their pets with them on planes. Dexter was the culmination of a movement that misused a law meant to protect handicapped passengers. It is reported that airlines fly millions of pets in the cabin of an aircraft every year, and many of those animals are real, prescribed emotional support animals.

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Unfortunately, the edges of the law are blurry, and it can be nearly impossible for airline employees to make the distinction between an emotional support animal and someone taking advantage of the rules to avoid fees. It is all too easy to purchase a vest that say “emotional support animal” for your pet, and many certification procedures can be done online with little effort. The case of Dexter the peacock went viral and pushed many airlines to say “enough is enough.”

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United specifically made the rules a lot stricter for emotional support animals–not all types of service animal. They have now put the task of certifying that an animal is cleared health and behavior-wise into the hands of veterinarians. People with emotional support animals must also provide proof of behavior training and vaccination. Airlines cited a rash of incidents over the last few years, in addition to passenger allergies and rising pet passenger numbers as the main drivers of this change. The rules for licensed service animals remain unchanged, and are not affected by these new rules.

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If you have an emotional support animal and plan to fly with them soon, here are a few links to the updated rules from the two airlines that have made changes so far:

 

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