Amid news stories about zoo creatures sitting on airplanes to help their owners cope with anxiety, the Department of Transportation on Wednesday announced it is proposing changing regulations related to service animals, letting airlines exclude emotional-support animals and defining service animals specifically as dogs trained to perform specific tasks to benefit a person with a disability.
And if you lie and say your pet is a service animal, that could be a federal crime.
Don’t worry, dude in York County who has an emotional-support alligator: You have 60 days to offer a public comment on the proposed changes. If these changes do go into effect, your gator can still technically fly — it will just be considered a pet and its treatment would be dictated by airline policy. And at the end of the day, it will still be up to the airlines to decide what animals they want to allow.
Over the last five years, more people with mental-health disorders have turned to emotional-support animals (ESAs), which typically have not had special training, as a means of treating depression and anxiety. They serve to comfort their owner, which can make them indistinguishable from a regular household pet to an outside observer.
Federal housing regulations were amended in 2015 to include language allowing people with disabilities to request reasonable accommodations for emotional-support animals, though the Americans with Disabilities Act describes a service animal as one that is trained to perform a task its owner can’t do. For example, some service dogs are trained to protect the head of a person with epilepsy during a seizure.
Owners of emotional-support animals can obtain ESA certification — and permission for housing and travel accommodations — through a doctor or internet services that, for a fee, connect clients with mental-health providers who conduct a clinical assessment over the phone.
As the use of emotional-support animals surged, so did horror stories, typically involving airports and airplanes, prompting some airlines to set their own restrictions. For example, last year, American Airlines Group Inc. put in place rules stating that just cats and dogs would be generally acceptable support animals and requiring that passengers provide notice at least two days before their flight.
But there were limits to what they could do, as the Transportation Department had previously required airlines consider emotional-support animals to be service animals.
The proposed new federal guidelines don’t exclude animals that treat mental-health disabilities, but they do require a psychiatric service animal to have the same training and treatment as other service animals.
The department also now provides forms that airlines can require passengers to fill out to take a service dog on a plane, and lying on them — say, to take your cat on vacation for free — would be considered a federal crime, punishable by a fine or even jail time. Those forms would be signed by the individual with the disability, certifying the animal has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for them and isn’t aggressive or poorly behaved in public.
The regulations also allow airlines to require passengers traveling with a service animal check in an hour before the travel time required for the general public; limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger to two; and require a service animal fit within its handler’s foot space.
The Department of Transportation says the regulations are a result of safety concerns amid airlines reporting increases in the number of service animals on aircraft, which could be the result of an increase in emotional-support animals, as well as passengers claiming their pets are there for psychiatric help and not just to be cute.
Here’s a look at the proposed regulation changes: