If you’ve been on a plane recently, you might have noticed a few non-human passengers. Dogs, cats, and even miniature horses might traverse the aisles, provided that their owners are able to keep them (relatively) under control.
These aren’t pets, by the way—at least, not technically. They’re emotional support animals (ESAs), and they’re protected by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Airlines cannot refuse transportation to people traveling with ESAs, nor can they charge pet travel fees.
Unfortunately, many people with support animals don’t actually need them.
“It’s really easy to turn your pet into an ESA, or at least a fake ESA,” explains Erin Jackson, a Chicago healthcare attorney at Jackson LLP. “There are countless online services that allow you to chat with a therapist and print out an ‘official’ ESA letter that states you have a qualifying diagnosis, that the provider with whom you chatted is treating you, and that you need your ESA for emotional support.”
Spend a few minutes on one of those websites—we found several with a quick Google search, although we’re not linking to them here—and you, too, can bring a “support” animal onto a plane.
Once you’ve converted your pet into an emotional support animal, it’s also protected by the Fair Housing Act, so your landlord can’t ask you to get rid of it even if you have a “no pets” clause in your lease. In fact, landlords can’t even assess extra deposit fees.
There’s no such thing as an ESA registry, and support animals aren’t as carefully regulated as service animals (we’ll explain the distinction in a moment). To turn your pet into a support animal, you simply need a letter from a qualified healthcare provider.
That is, of course, a big problem for airlines, landlords, travelers, and people who actually need ESAs.
We should note that emotional support animals and service animals aren’t the same thing.
The distinction, Jackson says, is crucial.
“Service dogs and ESAs are protected by different laws and perform different jobs,” she explains. “Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to help a disabled individual. In contrast, an ESA does not receive specific training and does not perform specific tasks relating to an individual’s disability.”
“An ESA’s role is to provide emotional support and comfort to an individual with a psychological or emotional diagnosis.”
That diagnosis has to come from a qualified mental health professional, and the service animal has to be a valid treatment for a disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These treatments can only be implemented by, again, a licensed medical professional, and like most mental health issues, it’s best to do it in person rather than online.
Practically, the major difference between service dogs and emotional support animals is that service dogs have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“While service dogs are protected by the ADA and must be accommodated in public places, emotional support animals are protected by air travel and housing laws and must be accommodated in those contexts,” Jackson says.
“For example, a service dog trained to alert its owner with epilepsy to the onset of a seizure must be allowed into Starbucks, [while] an ESA which offers emotional support to its owner with depression need not be allowed into Starbucks.”
Obtaining certification for an emotional support animal is relatively easy, while service animals undergo significant training in order to earn their designation. An emotional support animal can be just about any animal species that can be legally owned in the United States (although airlines may have additional restrictions for unusual animals like birds and reptiles), while service animals are typically dogs.
We spoke with a woman who admits to lying on her ESA documents to take her small dog on a plane.
She asked to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.
“I do get anxiety while flying,” she says, “but no, I haven’t been diagnosed with any actual emotional issue. Not by a legitimate psychiatrist. I just went online, paid a fee, and received the documents. They didn’t even really look at them when I boarded the plane.”
She became interested in obtaining an ESA note when she saw another traveler board an airplane with his dog. After some brief research, she chose a website and went through the process.
“I really expected it to take weeks,” she says. “At the very least, I expected some sort of…I don’t know, background check. But I’m not complaining.”
For her, it wasn’t a matter of convenience: it was a matter of safety.
“The alternative, for me, was putting a little Chihuahua through a system I didn’t trust,” our anonymous source says. “The airlines don’t have the best reputation for dealing with pets. I didn’t want to take an unnecessary risk.”
She may have a point. In July 2017, rapper ScHoolboy Q tweeted that United Airlines put his French bulldog on the wrong flight. In 2010, traveler Josiah Allen told Consumerist that Delta Airlines lost his dog, a recently-adopted mix he’d found on a beach in Mexico. The airline offered Allen a $200 flight credit for the lost pet, prompting outrage on social media.
Those incidents, however, are few and far between. Jackson says that travelers who go through improper channels to certify their pets as ESAs could make things harder for people who actually need them.
“Many people regularly see a mental health provider for treatment who has determined that the use of an ESA for emotional support can help to alleviate the symptoms of their diagnosis,” Jackson says. “When people pretend that their pets are ESAs, it can delegitimize the crucial role that true support animals play in their owners’ emotional health.”
We told our anonymous source about those concerns.
“I wouldn’t have considered this if I believed that my dog was dangerous or that it was going to annoy other passengers,” she says. “And everything went smoothly, I guess. I didn’t feel bad about it—not until this interview started!”
“Am I proud of it? No, absolutely not,” she continues. “But I’d certainly do it again, unless my pet’s behavior changed suddenly or if I thought I was inconveniencing people.”
That’s a problematic assumption, because even well-behaved pets can be unpredictable.
We’ve got bad news for pet owners looking to bypass airline pet fees: Your dog, cat, or lizard won’t suddenly gain new skills when you print out an ESA note from a less-than-reputable website. It’s important to note here that most guidelines and legitimate doctors consider ESAs, well, ESAs—not pets. They’re medical treatments for unavoidable illnesses, which is why they can skirt “No Pets” clauses on leases.
ACAA guidelines are remarkably relaxed; while animals “must be trained to behave appropriately in a public setting,” the airlines get to decide what constitutes “appropriate” behavior.
“People’s pets often interact with [appropriately-trained ESAs] at the airport as if they’re at a dog park or on the sidewalk,” Jackson says. “They approach the ESA wagging their tails, they drag their owner through the terminal, or they bark at ESAs on the plane. In contrast, ESAs are typically very well-behaved, which makes sense, since their entire role is to provide emotional support or comfort.”
While flight personnel can prevent poorly-tr pets from boarding, it’s a potentially costly proposition. Airlines face costly lawsuits for violating the ACAA, not to mention bad public relations.
“Thus, the pets masquerading as ESAs distract the true ESAs and their owners,” Jackson says, “and they invite heightened scrutiny into the regulation of ESAs, which makes things harder for those with disabilities.”
While we can’t accurately estimate the number of fake ESAs in the United States, it’s probably a fairly significant one.
According to a study conducted by the University of California at Davis, the number of emotional support animals and therapy dogs registered by California animal control facilities raised by a shocking 1,000 percent between 2002 and 2012.
Some of that increase is probably due to heightened awareness of legitimate emotional disorders like depression and anxiety, but the authors of the study believe that a “prevalence of misuse and misunderstanding of regulations and legislation on assistance dogs in California” contributed greatly to the numbers.
With that said, Jackson isn’t calling for a crackdown on fake emotional support animals. She believes that empathy could prompt a culture change.
“I’m a firm believer that bad, predatory information is best combated with good information,” she says. “By sharing the downsides of registering [unqualified] pets as ESAs, reminding the public that ESAs play a legitimate and important role in mental health, and educating airport staff about the requirements and purpose of the law, individuals may be discouraged from using the [fake ESA] websites.”
“Health publications, websites, and providers can also remind people that ESA documentation should be received from their provider—not purchased.”
Unfortunately, mental healthcare is expensive, and Jackson notes that many individuals with mental illnesses don’t actually receive the treatment they need. Those people might have pets that meet all of the requirements to qualify as emotional support animals.
“These individuals may see the online ESA websites as the only way to obtain the documentation necessary to get housing that accommodates their ESA or to embark on air travel,” Jackson says. “So, I think it’s important that these discussions always highlight the need to expand mental health care availability and funding.”