Bringing Miniature Horses on Planes and an Emotional Support Goat: Have We Gone Too Far?

Hollywood Report says this is the golden age of flying thanks to the ability of anyone — Hollywood star or not — bring their emotional support turkey on a plane. For free.

Who said pigs can’t fly? Service-animal registrations are at an all-time high as helping aides in the form of monkeys and 160-pound bulldogs make their way onto airplanes with ease.

They say the Golden Age of air travel is over. But if your anxiety is assuaged by the soothing bleats of an emotional support goat, now is a magical time to fly.

…The zaniest anecdotes (like the “support pig” ejected from a D.C.-bound plane after it relieved itself in the aisle or the “therapy turkey” whisked via wheelchair onto a recent Delta flight) tend to go viral. But the habit has become particularly commonplace on the LAX-JFK route favored by fussy celebrities and industry execs. “Now I don’t even react when an agent tells me there are three support animals on board,” says Heather Poole, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline. “I just pray they’re not too big — and that it’s a dog and not a goat.”

Registrations of service animals rose from about 2400 five years ago to over 20,000 last year.

Playboy’s February 1988 Playmate of the Month-turned-interior designer for Jessica Alba and Kristen Bell travels with a 160-pound bulldog. She says he whimpers and that tells her to take medication.

And lest you think the practice is relegated to mere mortals, think again: “I saw the actor that plays Superman, Henry Cavill, at the airport with his support dog,” she adds. “That was a little disappointing. He’s Superman.”

We have a really strange bifurcated system now where you have to pay ~ $150 each way to take a pet on board and they have to remain in a carrier throughout the flight. But call that same pet an emotional support ‘service animal’ and they can come out of the carrier and don’t cost anything.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities, and thus they must make reasonable accommodations for them which allow them to fly — like having access to their emotional support animals. While in theory they don’t have to allow any animal that would be disruptive to the flight, there’s legal risk in a flight attendant or even captain making that decision on the spot. While the issue is under review at the Department of Transportation, there’s no firm rules or safe harbors for airlines to dispute a claim that an animal is necessary as a reasonable disability accommodation.

There are companies that sell registration of emotional support animals, but that doesn’t really get you anything, you still need that doctor’s note.

I’ve taken my Yorkshire Terrier on many flights, usually when visiting family, but he fits just fine under the seat and simply goes to sleep for most of the flight. He gets a thorough walk before and after, and I’ve tried to time flights with his usual nap times. Other passengers remark at the end of the flight when he comes out from underneath that they didn’t even know he was there.

Have emotional support animal claims gotten out of control? Are people taking advantage? What should be done about it?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. People bringing “support” animals is absurd. Unless you have a seeing eye dog how about leaving the pets at home, or have the not in the passenger cabin.

  2. It’s gone too far. Why do so many more people need emotional support pets now as opposed to 10-20 years ago.

    I’ve always wondered, what happens if someone is allergic to dogs and is sitting next to someone who brings one one board. Who will be forced out or to change seats?

  3. Why aren’t terrorists treated as mentally sick instead of as criminals?

    No one can claim to be a liberal until they answer a bomb with a rose. We should dropping roses in Syria.

    I think our society is full of self centered drama queens now.

  4. I think it important to clarify that not all support animals are either seeing eye dogs or emotional support animals with nothing in-between.

    Note in the article above the bulldog, a class of support animal that is specially trained to smell certain early warning chemical signs of a patient with a serious chronic illness like diabetes or seizures. These animals can be life savers and significantly raise the quality of life for certain patients.

  5. I was forced once to sit next to a passenger with a little dog (in a cage under the seat) which had bowel issues the entire five hour flight and stunk up the entire cabin. Beyond being disgusted I felt physically sick throughout the entire flight. It’s gone too far. Their animals need to go in the hold. And if I decided to travel with my own dog, he would be there as well.

  6. I have no problem with legitimate support animals for assistance with physical disabilities, especially considering the special training that such animals receive. But if a person is so emotionally fragile that they’re unable to handle a flight without their dog (or cat, or bird, or pig, or whatever), I don’t think that the person should be on the plane.

  7. So all these people get doctor’s notes for their emotional support animals?

    Do the doctors ever prescribe xanax as an alternative?

  8. Or airlines could simply do what Amtrak did and put a max number of animals per flight and once that is hit, it’s done. ESA’s would know longer be allowed and only medical assist (different from emotional) can go over that threshold.

    Also the pricing is totally out of wack, an airline charging $150 to bring a pet that sits under the seat, and the passenger ticket costing say $75 really makes it a no brainer to just lie.

  9. i cannot water this down… it’s fucking ridiculous. it’s an open non-secret that it’s the way to take your pet for free. my bottom line: 1 passenger’s whims/abuses should not be more important than others. i am VERY allergic to cats and some dogs. i have no way of knowing in advance whether there is an animal i am allergic to on a flight. 5 hours of recycled air impacts my REAL health, as opposed to a fake ‘condition’ so fluffy can sit on their f-ing lap. do they take the animal to work every day (for emotional support)? doubt it. animals in hotel rooms is nasty too. sure, if you’re staying at a motel 6- expect it. in a park hyatt or st. regis, i should not have to deal with a barking f-ing dog.

    the pc bs self obsessed narcissistic world we now live in it literally de-evolution. DEVO was just 35 years to early…

  10. @ Nathan, Unfortunately that actually happened on a flight. A young boy had an allergic reaction to a ” support” dog that was in the plane. The reaction happened while the plane was still on the ground. The parents complained to the flight attendants (apparently, they were a bit nervous when expressing their issue but not disrespectful). What the airline did was to kick the family and the boy out and reschedule them on a later flight ( the dog and his/her owner stayed). I personally love animals and I have a cat and I completely understand that certain people really need a support animal due to a psychological or psychiatric disorder and I completely believe that dogs, cats, birds can bring real joy and improve certain people lives ( those who have a real support animal), I think in such situations as the one described above, that it should be the dog and the owner that should take another flight and who should understanding about it. What pisses me off is that I believe ( and I might be wrong) that more than 90% percent of those bringing those ‘support animals’ on board are just smuggling their pets into the cabin because their beloved puppy would not handle the trip in the cargo area ( it will suffocate, it is not used to be alone in the dark :'( blah blah blah). And I am sorry because I am gonna be judgemental here: you can see from the story that the people who are doing this are people with first world problems (playmate as in the story above, actress, business exec, daughters and sons of rich people). While I am completely pissed at their behavior, I am more angry at the fact that they are gonna screw it for the few people who really need it. ” Kristen Bell travels with a 160-pound bulldog. She says he whimpers and that tells her to take medication” just wow about that!!!

  11. @jfhscott – Xanax will work as long as my “service” dog whimpers to remind me to take it:)

  12. My partner suffers from high anxiety and vasovagal reactions. Having our small (noiseless) dog helps. Xanex does not. Medicine does not fix the problem. Also, medication can become addictive and lead to other problems.

    I do think ostriches and turkeys take it all a bit too far. These can seriously inconvenience other passengers. Dogs (and I assume pigs) were chosen as service animals for their ability to stay quiet, stay still, and assist in whatever way they are trained to with minimal inconvenience to others.

    Granted, I’ve never had to sit next to a turkey. So who knows… maybe they’d be a better seat mate that the old man who constantly has to use restroom, kid who cant stop playing with attendant button .. and so on…

  13. The pricing for traveling with pets feels abusive and out-of-control. They count as a “Carry-On”, and they do not get their own seat. So effectively you are paying $150 – $400 R/T for a Carry-on that costs the airline nothing.

    So while I don’t agree with fraudulently calling everything that moves a “support animal”, I feel like the airline industry is equally disingenuous in their handling of pet travel. I’d like to see reform on both sides.

  14. This isn’t news… its an age old story… “some” people are going to abuse the system. It happens with Food Stamps, Welfare, Social Security, Medicare, Health Insurance, Banking, Store return policies, Handicap parking spaces, Parking meters, Military discounts and privileges, the list is endless. You have find a way to reduce the fraud without negatively impacting people who are following the original intent. I fly all the time and have yet to be inconvenienced by a “service animal”. If the airlines believed it was out of control, they would be talking to the FAA about it. Apparently, that isn’t happening. However, the way to resolve the issue isn’t by disparaging people who are using service animals as a class of entitled whiners. This was yet another “outrage of the day” story. Can we just stick to real news?

  15. If I have a peanut allergy airlines will refuse to serve peanuts on a plane. If I’m allergic to dogs and someone with a support dog is seated next to me, who is forced to move , who’s condition takes precedence?

  16. @eric – What happens when your “service” animal causes an allergic reaction that sends another passenger to the hospital?

  17. I am “guilty” of being one of these people for my small dog, but only because I was outraged at having to pay a ridiculous fee for literally NO value add by the airline. My dog is small, well-behaved, and fits completely in a travel carrier under the seat. However the airlines charge $100-$125 one-way AND they have the gall to count the carrier against your carry-on, meaning you’re then forced to check a bag and pay even more. I simply don’t understand why they have these onerous restrictions – there’s literally no extra work required of the staff or use of the airline’s resources. It would be one thing if they didn’t count the carrier towards your carry-on but this is madness.

    My behavior or attitude hasn’t changed at all due to getting the ESA certification – my dog still behaves just as well and sits in his carrier under the seat, and I don’t feel entitled to let him run around freely, but I’ve literally saved almost $1000 over the past six months. I feel perfectly justified in getting this certification since I am not abusing it by trying to bring a ridiculous animal (huge dog, horse, etc) which would legitimately inconvenience other passengers. Most passengers don’t even realize he’s there, and if they do, he’s super friendly and they just smile and scratch his head

  18. Oh and as a follow-up to those who ask “what if people have allergies?” Well my dog would have been there either way, I just would have had to pay a fee for it. So what difference does it make?

  19. @SF – I agree with you that if the pet can fit under the seat in front of you (same as a carry-on) then the animal should count simply as a piece of carry-on luggage. Of course what would then happen would be people trying to shove their animal in the overhead bin, bring in containers which wouldn’t fit, etc. which would then cause the carrier to check the pet, which then requires the special charges (because pets would need special handling). I’ve seen people lug in all kinds of things which won’t fit in the overhead bin or under the seat and then proceed to fight with the attendant about it. Can you imagine the argument and logistical issues which would ensue trying to then charge the person extra as they are boarding – what a nightmare? The simplest thing for the airlines to do is to just charge for all animals because you’re going to have people who will abuse it. I completely understand your point and sympathize with it, but the intent of the law isn’t to allow people to avoid airline fees – it’s to assist people with medical needs. The same thing goes for people who park in handicapped parking… it’s just bad karma.

  20. Let’s not confuse ADA with the Air Carrier Access Act. Some are conflating “service animal” with “emotional support animal.”
    Yes, you need a letter from a “qualified mental healthcare professional.” Your family doctor doesn’t count. It is supposed to have specific wording. If you want to take the time to go to a psychiatrist and he agrees to write the letter, you win.
    AND it’s not really about flying with an emotional support animal, it’s about needing the animal where you are going.

    As to anyone having heard about xanax, the answer is “yes.”. I give my dog 1 mg before every flight.
    @Nathan Drake says :what happens if someone is allergic to dogs and is sitting next to someone who brings one one board?
    Answer: The dog wins!!!!!!. The allergic passenger is supposed to be accommodated in another seat, and there are plenty of dog lovers willing to move.
    I’ve never had problem with my support dog. She accompanies me to the office and if I am going to be away from home for a lengthy time with no friends, she flies business class with me.

    Of course, i have the rare short-haired dog that everyone loves except for one Fa on a flight to Israel.
    What isn’t appropriate is FA’s who give you the evil eye. Look, in 4 -across all-aisle business class, a medium sized dog (33 pounds) just isn;t a problem.
    I’ve NEVER had a problem with my dog on a flight, and she’s flown long distances too.

  21. I think most of the people on my flight out of DFW on Wednesday should have had support animals. They certainly need something. I feel like my IQ went down during the flight.

  22. For $39.95 you can go online and purchase a certificate claiming your pet as a “Service Animal”. If you cannot possibly fly without one, stay home or drive! Not PC but there are so many abuses! Also, while waiting at BWI for a recent flight, I heard 2 crew members discussing this issue. It seems that on a recent flight, the Service Animal needed his Service Animal so 2 animals flew in the cabin,at no cost, and to the chagrin of other passengers. Give me a break.

  23. “Who said pigs can’t fly? Service-animal registrations are at an all-time high as helping aides in the form of monkeys and 160-pound bulldogs make their way onto airplanes with ease.”

    Please get your FACTS straight. You are using the terms “service animal” and “emotional support animal” interchangeably, when the two are very different.

    SERVICE ANIMALS – which by the way are restricted by the ADA to being dogs and miniature horses so that monkey in the quote above doesn’t qualify – are TASK-TRAINED to provide assistance to people with diagnosed disabilities in the form of specific tasks – seeing eye, hearing ear, mobility assist, picking up and retrieving things for people in wheelchairs, detecting low blood-sugar and impending seizures – all of those roles require intensive training AND require the service animal to focus solely on the person they are assisting, ignoring every other person and animal around them. They are considered to be MEDICAL EQUIPMENT, NOT PETS.

    Also FYI – alerting a person that it is time for them to take their medication ****IS**** an accepted task that would classify a dog as being a service animal. It is a TASK that they must be trained to do. – Again, get your facts straight before shooting off your mouth.

    An “Emotional Support Animal” is not provided, nor is required to have, any kind of task-specific training at all. Simply “providing comfort” is not a task or a skill. Every pet provides comfort to their owners, so that’s nothing special. Nor do they undergo any screening to weed out animals that do not have the correct temperament. This is why they are not allowed into most of the dog-free areas that a service dog is allowed into gratis, like restaurants, stores, etc. They would fail the question that business owners ARE allowed to ask: “is that a service animal, and what tasks has it been trained to perform?”

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