Emotional Support Animals Abusing The System


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) help their owners deal with or overcome specific mental challenges. They provide unconditional love and help us produce neurotransmitters, stabilize strong emotions, and regulate everyday feelings. When traveling, they can also help calm anxiety. In a country where more than 20% of the population has a mental illness, the US will therefore always have people walking around and even traveling with these animals.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem. Although everyone with mental illness has a right to bring a therapy pet on their travel, it increasingly looks like some people are abusing the provision. Put simply, even those who don’t need a therapy pet are now bringing animals on planes. Worse still, some of these animals aren’t licensed – some aren’t even properly trained. This level of abuse is a recipe for disaster.

On Airplanes, ESAs Cause Disruptions 61% of the Time

According to a recent study by the Association of Flight Attendants, up to 98% of airline crew have worked in a flight with one or more emotional support animals on board in the past two years. What’s even more worrying is that in 61% of the flights, an ESA caused a disruption!

About 53% of the disruptions involved aggressive and, sometimes, threatening behavior by the ESA. Examples here include a dog snapping at a flight attendant’s heel as the attendant walks by. In some cases, dogs have even bitten attendants. Just recently, a dog bit a crew member of the Delta Airlines. The treatment required five stitches and a few days off work. Earlier, in April 2019, another dog lunged at Marlin Jackson’s face on a Delta flight. Jackson needed 28 stitches and has visible scars to date. Repeated barking and lunging at passengers, crew, and children are other frequently reported incidents.

Another 43% of the disruptions, meanwhile, involve animals failing to fit in the designated space. Where this is the case, the animals often end up roaming about the cabin for the entire flight. In one case, a bird went missing in the cabin for more than 45 minutes.

It’s Time to Contain this Mess

Currently, there’s no agency/body to keep track of these animals. In fact, even the exact number of ESAs isn’t known. This has forced airlines to take matters into their own hands. United Airlines, for example, has recently resorted to turning back passengers with ESAs. In January 2018, the airline blocked a woman trying to board a flight with a peacock.

Clear legislation would go a long way in better addressing the issue so that patients with genuine and documented needs don’t become victims.

Rebecca Stone, a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Florida, believes that the first step is to determine whether someone qualifies for ESA. Currently, you can head to Amazon and acquire a “Service Dog,” Seizure Alert Dog,” or “ESA” with absolutely no proof of training or abilities. Heck, for a few bucks, you’ll even get an accompanying dog indicator tag. It gets worse. For about $50-70, you will get a certificate from a dog’s registry certifying that the animal is an ESA. The National Service Animal Registry, a private commercial enterprise, for instance, had signed up more than 182,000 “helper” animals, mostly ESAs, by March 2018.

This Trend Cannot be Allowed to Continue

Travelers are now getting “certifications” and “licenses” for all kinds of animals. These include household birds (such as parrots, finches, etc.), rodents (such as guinea pigs, hamsters, etc.), reptiles (such as alligators) and non-household birds. Without proper regulation and legislation, the raging confusion makes the situation a ticking time bomb.

Back to Learning Center