I fly with my trained service dog, Bobbi, every month or two. But every time we head to the airport, I never know what we’ll encounter. Will someone question Bobbi’s legitimacy or training? Will a passenger freak out about her breed? (She looks like a pit bull.) Or the scariest — as it’s the only one with real consequences — will we have to deal with an untrained emotional support animal that growls and lunges at us from across the aisle on this flight?
While trained service animals are always allowed to fly, the federal Air Carrier Access Act also allows people with mental health disabilities to fly with an emotional support animal free of charge. The animal does not have to have specific training; it is only required that the passenger has a “prescription” from a licensed mental health professional stating the animal helps alleviates their condition.
The simple guidelines made it very easy for animals to join their humans on flights — and an increasing number of them did. One could obtain a prescription from a professional for as little as $80 from multiple websites that claim to offer a written letter via email within 24 hours after only a few minutes conversation with a “mental health professional.” It became a sort of open secret for how to get your dog (or in some cases pot-bellied big, peacock or monkey) to fly with you in the cabin for free. As the number of dogs increased, so did the number of incidents, which led to all the major U.S.-based airlines tightening their emotional support and service animal policies in 2018.
While it is not illegal to fly with your pet (it is quite easy, actually) there are still some rules you’ll need to follow. If your pet is an emotional support or service dog, there are set guidelines. Below, find everything you’ll need to know before you and your four-legged pal head to the airport.
Flying with small dogs and cats
If you have a dog or cat small enough to fit into a ventilated pet carrier that can slide underneath an airline seat, you can pay a fee for them to fly in the cabin with you. The fees vary depending on the airline, ranging from about $100 to $200 per flight. JetBlue even has a frequent flyer program with which your pet can help you rack up points. When it’s time to go through security, your dog will clear with you.
At the gate, request a pre-board to make your boarding process as seamless as possible.
“Carrying even a small dog in a carrier down a plane aisle is almost impossible if people are already in any of the seats,” said Brandon Schultz, who recently paid a pet fee for his pup Leo, a long-haired Chihuahua, to fly from New York to California on Delta Airlines. “Ask the airline if you can pre-board if possible. It made life much easier. I didn’t worry about bumping into 30 people going down the aisle and had time to put the carrier under the seat without climbing over someone.”
Flying with a bigger animal
Flying with a larger dog is also possible, but your pup will be required to be shipped as cargo. While this may sound cruel, and there are some horror stories and risks associated with the process, in general it is considered to be safe. My service dog Bobbi arrived from the Bahamas in the cargo hold of a Delta flight from the Humane Society of Grand Bahama and did just fine. That said, this is not an ideal way to transport a dog for a quick holiday and should be reserved for a move where driving isn’t possible.
The process can be time consuming — your pet may not end up on the same flight as you, for instance, and you will have to drop them off and pick him up in the airline’s cargo area, not at the ticket counter. It is also expensive (fees are often based on weight) and requires extra documentation like a health certificate. For more on flying animals in cargo see the individual rules for major carriers like Delta, United and American Airlines.
Flying with an emotional support animal
If you’re traveling with an emotional support animal, you’ll often need to provide a few different documents depending on your carrier. At minimum, you will need a letter, dated not more than a year from the date of travel, from a mental health professional whose care you are under stating the dog or cat helps to alleviate your condition. Airlines can require this documentation 48 hours before flying.
Additionally, most of the major airlines (Southwest Airlines is the exception here) require passengers to upload a form from a veterinarian stating the animal’s “fitness to fly” and vaccination records. Many airlines, including JetBlue and Frontier, also require passengers to sign documentation stating the animal can behave in public and that the owner takes full responsibility for any damage it causes.
Flying with a trained service animal
Trained service animals, which are defined as dogs that have been trained to assist a person with a disability with a specific task as well as how to behave in public environments, do not typically require a letter for the right to fly. But if the disability is related to mental health and the passenger is flying on United, American or Delta, it’s best to contact the airline 48 hours in advance to make sure you meet the criteria, as these airlines may require documentation for what they call psychiatric service animals. Additionally, airlines require that service animals be clearly identified as such and leashed at all times. Be prepared to answer questions about whether you have a disability and what task the animal is trained to help with.
Prepare for the unknown
Even if you follow all the rules, you’re bound to encounter some obstacles when traveling with your pet. Having patience and knowing your rights are key.
If you’re traveling with a pet or emotional support animal and you’re worried the dog or cat will be anxious on the flight, it is also OK to give them medication as long as you chat about it first with their veterinarian.
“The choice to use an anti-anxiety medication or other remedies for a pet during travel definitely depends on the pet,” Bethany Yurek, a partner at Vetwerx Animal Hospital in Denver, said in an email. “If your pet tends to have a high stress level, especially in situations it is not accustomed to, the use of anti-anxiety medications is going to make the experience much nicer for both of you. For those pets who are used to travel or change, anti-anxiety medication should not be necessary.
“Cats are the exception. Most cats do likely benefit from some sort of anti-anxiety medication or remedy during travel, as cats are notorious for handling any change in their normal environments poorly.”