Your bags are packed, and you are ready to begin your long-awaited journey, accompanied by your faithful emotional support animal. Before you step out the door, there are a few things to consider.
Remember that not everyone is aware of the vital role emotional support animals play for their disabled handlers. Emotional support animals differ from service animals in that they do not require task-specific training in order to provide effective support. Instead, many times just by their presence, these animals mitigate the impacts of depression, anxiety, panic disorder, or other disabilities that may prevent someone from completing everyday interactions.
Having your dog with you in public spaces, such as traveling by air, can result in confrontations with those who do not understand the protections and federal laws in place regarding emotional support animals. While the Air Carrier Access Act states that you can bring an emotional support animal onboard with you and airlines cannot charge an additional fee for you to do so, that is not the end of your preparation.
To fly with your emotional support animal, you must have certain paperwork in order. In addition, follow a few simple travel tips to make your journey smooth and enjoyable.
Prepare in Advance of Your Trip
Fortunately, there are not too many things you will need to be ready for your trip. Make a checklist to ensure you have them all in order.
Booking Your Flight
Airline regulations regarding temperature for travel are not as strict when your animal is traveling in the cabin with you. However, the temperature may come into play if your travel plans change and your animal has to travel with cargo. In this case, temperature restrictions along the route, check-in times, and additional fees may apply. Dogs must be a certain age before they are allowed to fly, typically 8-10 weeks old for domestic travel, and 15-16 weeks for most international travel.
Most airlines require standard documentation for any animal to fly: a current health certificate from your veterinarian (completed within 10 to 30 days of travel, depending on the airline) and proof of up-to-date vaccinations. In addition, you will require a letter from a licensed mental health professional prescribing your emotional support animal for an emotional disability.
This letter should state that your emotional support animal is prescribed to assist in day-to-day functioning by mitigating the symptoms associated with your emotional disability, as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The letter should be on letterhead and include the following:
- Issuing a professional’s name
- License number and date
- Jurisdiction or state of license
- An indication that you are under their professional care
- Date of letter issue
The letter is valid for one year from the date of issue, so if you have a current letter, check the date to ensure it is valid for your dates of travel.
Some airlines have an additional, specific form they need you to complete. Others require notice 48 hours before your flight that you will be traveling with an emotional support animal. For a quick reference, the National Service Animal Registry website has a page summarizing the requirements for several major airlines.
Identifying Vest and Leash: While not required by the airlines or by law, a vest and leash identifying your dog as an emotional support animal may be a good investment if only to signal to others that your dog is serving a purpose, and is not traveling as a pet. The vest and collar, however, do not in and of themselves, confer any official status upon your emotional support animal. Only a valid letter from your mental health professional will do that.
An all-purpose dog harness can be purchased from multiple sites online. Remember, in many states, it is illegal to misrepresent an animal as a service animal. Unless your dog is trained to perform a specific task, they are not considered a service dog. A reference, such as that offered by the National Service Animal Registry (https://www.nsarco.com/), can help determine the appropriate vest for your emotional support dog.
Introduce your dog to the vest well in advance of your trip so they become accustomed to wearing it. Make sure you can easily put it on and remove it, if necessary, for passing through TSA.
Carrier or crate: If your emotional support animal will be traveling in a carrier or crate, double-check the airline’s size requirements, as the carrier must fit underneath the seat in front of you. In addition, while airlines cannot ban specific breeds of animals, they may have some size and weight restrictions, so check ahead of time.
Collapsible dog bowl: Bringing a collapsible water bowl can help you to avoid the need to look for a bowl from which your dog can drink. Easy to pack and take along, you can toss it in your travel bag and keep your dog hydrated along the way.
Treats and dog food: Delays, long layovers, and cancellations can pop up. Carrying a night’s worth of food for your dog ensures they have their own food should you have to layover somewhere overnight on the way to your destination. Again, a collapsible bowl can serve to feed your dog and pack easily away.
Waste bags, potty pads, and cleaning wipe: You do not want to be caught without these if your pup decides they cannot wait, either in the terminal or on the plane. Stuff these in your carry-on bag to take care of any accidents.
Flying with Your Emotional Support Animal
At the Check-in Counter
When you arrive, inform the representative at the check-in counter that you are traveling with an emotional support animal. Present the prescription letter from your licensed mental health professional. You may have to send in a copy of this letter before your flight. If your airline requires a specific verification form, ensure you have a copy of that in addition to your dog’s health certificate and record of vaccinations.
How to Get Through TSA
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) navigation can be taxing on a good day, so it is a good idea to be ready. The TSA website states regarding service animal screening: You and your service dog/animal will be screened by a walk-through metal detector. You may walk through together or you may lead the animal through separately on a leash. You will undergo a pat-down if you are not screened by the walk-through metal detector. If the metal detector alarms, you and your service dog/animal will undergo additional screening, including a pat-down.
As with your identification, have the paperwork identifying your dog as an emotional support animal handy. Make sure your dog’s leash is available to quickly clip onto your dog’s collar or harness, and be aware that your dog may require additional screening. Once at the boarding gate, you can inform the attendants that you are traveling with an emotional support animal. They may allow you early boarding.
In the Airport Terminal
For multi-leg flights and layovers, hop online and review the airport map to determine nearby dog relief stations. Federal regulations require that larger airports have such stations in the terminals for service animals. Consider carrying some potty pads, waste bags, and wipes for quick cleanup, should an accident occur.
On the Airplane
On the aircraft, your emotional support animal must either be in a carrier that fits under the seat in front of you or on the floor in the space between your knees and the seat in front of you. If your dog is small, they may be permitted to sit in your lap, provided they can do so safely, they are well behaved and do not intrude into other travelers’ space. Your dog cannot block any spaces that must remain clear for safety reasons, such as aisles or emergency exits, and they may not occupy a seat.
Do not expect to be automatically upgraded to a different seating class to accommodate your emotional support animal; airlines are not required to do so. However, they cannot refuse your dog simply because it makes other passengers or crew uncomfortable.
For long flights, consider whether your emotional support animal will need to relieve itself and make sure they can do so in a sanitary manner. In these cases, it may be worthwhile to introduce your dog to potty pads in advance of your trip.
As a responsible handler, you must ensure that your emotional support animal is clean and behaves properly. Inappropriate or unsafe behaviors, such as barking, running around or jumping, or eating from the tray table, may be cause for your animal to be refused on the flight, per the U.S. Department of Transportation. Also, ensuring your emotional support animal is a good canine citizen is simply the right thing to do.
Be prepared, be considerate of those around you, and enjoy your journey with your emotional support animal.