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The winter holidays are one of the most hectic times for air travel. Large crowds, cranky kids and icy weather can turn a simple trip into a nerve-rattling mess. In recent years a new concern has been added to this list of issues: potential complications caused by emotional support animals onboard.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are creatures that provide general comfort to people with psychological conditions like anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. ESAs are distinct from service animals like guide dogs, which undergo intense training to support individuals with a specific disability. Emotional support animals require no specific training.
In 1986 Congress passed a law permitting ESAs to accompany passengers on planes, but they didn’t become a common sight until recent years. One company that sells products for service and emotional support animals says its registry grew from 2,400 animals in 2011 to more than 200,000 this year.
Along with the increase in numbers, a spike in animal-related incidents has occurred. There have been reports of animals biting flight attendants, defecating on the ground and panicking during flights. In August the Department of Transportation issued updated regulations that permit airlines to require documentation for ESAs.
Why there’s debate
A backlash to ESAs on flights has come from a number of groups. Airline employees have complained that the animals have made their jobs more difficult and pose a safety risk. Some disability groups have argued that the ease of obtaining an ESA certification — which is often issued by a therapist but can easily be found online — has led to rampant abuse of accommodations by people who just want to fly with their pets for free.
Viral news stories about people trying to take exotic animals, such as peacocks or squirrels, on planes have created a stigma that harms people with a legitimate need for support animals, some argue.
Defenders of ESAs argue that an aggressive crackdown on scammers could lead to many people with real needs being harmed as well. Just because someone lacks the proper paperwork or a highly trained animal, some argue, doesn’t mean their reliance on an ESA is illegitimate. Others argue that criticism of ESAs feeds a damaging attitude that mental health is less worthy of treatment than physical health.
The Transportation Department is reportedly expected to revise its regulations to “clarify the definition of a service animal” in the near future. The airline industry, along with some disability and veterans’ groups, is pushing the government to require that ESAs receive formal training before they’re allowed on planes.
Research on the effectiveness of ESAs in treating anxiety is inconclusive
“The research on dogs is inconclusive. The research on emotional support peacocks and hamsters doesn’t exist.” — Psychology researcher Molly Crossman to Vox
Better regulations are needed to keep people safe
“Until federal or state governments pass legislation requiring greater oversight for emotional support animals, especially related to animal behavior requirements, and until many suppliers of emotional support animal documentation act more responsibly, we are all going to be at risk for being bitten, especially on an airplane.” — Cynthia K. Chandler, Counseling Today
Exotic animals shouldn’t be allowed on planes
“A squirrel is a rodent. Pretending it’s an emotional support animal threatens progress for people who have real problems and need real therapy animals.” — Steven Petrow, USA Today
Abuse of ESA rules hurts people with legitimate disabilities
“In a nation that does not adequately acknowledge and address mental health, the abuse of accommodations for people with emotional or mental health issues both delegitimizes those conditions and undermines efforts to bring them out of the shadows.” — Neil J. Young, HuffPost
ESAs are a scam
“The ‘emotional support’ exemption for animals is mostly a scam to get pets on airplanes for free, and airlines should push back hard for the sake and safety of their customers.” — Nolan Finley, Detroit News
ESAs harm more people than they help
“People weren’t thinking about the collective cost of their actions — about the many children afraid of sitting next to a dog, about travelers with serious allergies, about flight attendants charged with keeping cabins safe and, most of all, about truly disabled travelers.” — David Leonhardt, New York Times
Any barriers placed would exclude people with legitimate needs
“One might argue that we should require ESAs to go through the same training as service dogs. However, this creates new problems of training time requirements and financial burdens. Not everyone can afford this route.” — Stephen Rice, Forbes
There’s evidence ESAs can be effective treatment
“Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, it seems clear that trained service and therapy animals, as well as untrained emotional support animals, can provide important functions for those with psychological and emotional issues.” — F. Diane Barth, NBC News
Getting an animal trained and certified might be too much work for many people
“Surely, many people who get ESA certifications for their pets are selfishly motivated by convenience — they just want to bring their pets on to airplanes or into Starbucks. But others see it as a way to self-medicate without spending the time and money on an official psychological assessment to confirm what they already know: that anxiety is affecting their wellbeing.” — Adrienne Matei, Guardian
Tougher rules might perpetuate the problem of overmedication
“Civil rights advocates say that cracking down too harshly on phony service animals can further stigmatize mental health issues, while also reinforcing the idea that medication is the only appropriate response to mental illness.” — Rachel M. Cohen, Intercept
Mental health issues don’t get the same respect as physical health
“There’s a disparate response to emotional support animals … and we think that it’s essentially a form of discrimination against a set of disabilities that are not visible. Any time you marginalize or create different conditions for a set of people, it’s very disconcerting and stigmatizing.” — Mental illness advocate Angela Kimball to Washington Post
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Julio Cortez/AP