Horses for courses: US moves to limit emotional support animals

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January 23, 2020
emotional support animals
Guide dogs are good to go under new rules. Photo: Aneeli Salo/Wikicommons.

The days of finding an “emotional support” horse on a US jet will be over if proposed rules restricting service animals to dogs are adopted.

Americans have become used to traveling with a menagerie of emotional support animals ranging from miniature horses and possums to iguanas and peacocks.

Current Department of Transportation service animal rules don’t include a restriction on species except for certain unusual types  such as snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders.

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Airlines had been attempting to crack down on widespread abuse of the system but the new rules will give them DoT backing.

The department’s notice of proposed rulemaking restricts the definition of a service animal not just to faithful Fido but those dogs that have been trained as service animals.

Carriers would no longer be required to recognize emotional support animals as service animals and could treat them as pets.

The proposal would require passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal to submit DoT documentation about its training and behavior, good health and “attesting that the animal has the ability to either not relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner”.

Carriers would also be allowed to limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger and require an animal to fit within a handler’s foot space.

However, the airlines would be prohibited from refusing to transport a service animal based solely on its breed or general physical type such as a pit bull terrier.

The DoT noted passengers currently have an incentive to claim pets as emotional support animals because the existing regulations require carriers to transport all emotional support animals at no cost.

Applauding the proposal, Airlines for America (A4A) echoed a DoT observation that increased availability of fraudulent emotional support animal credentials had enabled people not truly in need of animal assistance to abuse the rules and evade airline policies.

The airline lobby group said this had led to an increase in incidents by untrained animals threatening the health and safety of passengers and crew.

It described the DoT’s decision to limit service animals to specially trained dogs as a “positive step in protecting the legitimate right of passengers to travel with a service animal”.

“Airlines want all passengers and crew to have a safe and comfortable flying experience, and we are confident the proposed rule will go a long way in ensuring a safer and healthier experience for everyone,” said A4A president Nicholas E. Calio.

“We commend Sec. Chao for her leadership providing the clarity travelers, employees and airlines need by ensuring only dogs trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities are allowed on board aircraft.”