How to Spot a Fake Emotional Support Animal on a Plane

This is the golden age of flying for geese thanks to the ability of anyone to bring their emotional support turkey on a plane. For free.

I’ve taken my Yorkshire Terrier on a few flights over the years but not in quite some time. 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 timed 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.

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

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.

There’s currently no firm rules or safe harbors for airlines to dispute a claim that an animal is necessary as a reasonable disability accommodation, but that’s under review at the Department of Transportation. I do not expect action on this soon.

Currently DOT offers totally useless guidance to tell whether or not a service animal is legit.

According to DOT guidance to the airlines, harnesses, vests, capes and backpacks may identify an animal as a service animal. But, “the absence of such equipment does not necessarily mean the animal is not a service animal. Similarly, the presence of a harness or vest … may not be sufficient evidence that the animal is, in fact, a legitimate service animal.”

One technique though may be a bit more straightforward:

Deb Davis, community outreach manager for Paws with a Cause of Wayland, outside Grand Rapids, said it’s easy to spot the impostor service dogs: those carried in a purse, or those that growl, bark or act aggressively. In other words, the pretenders often lack good public manners, she said.

I’m not willing to agree that “carr[ying] in a purse” means the owner is faking it. And traditional service animals, trained to act as guides for the blind, won’t generally “growl, bark or act aggressively” but in the world of frivolous lawsuits and regulations lacking clear guidance who is to say that the barking isn’t precisely what comforts the passenger with a disability?

Airlines are in a no-win situation. Just like porn, we know it when we see it, but what’s a reasonable test an airline can use to shield itself from liability?

Most passengers think that emotional support pigs and monkeys go too far. (There’s actually a whole different set of rules for animals who are celebrities).

How do you draw a line, besides falling back on Potter Stewart’s guidelines for obscenity?

(HT: Johnny Jet)

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. Great question, Jason, and I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear. The “GROW UP” comment was intended to be 100% UNIVERSAL. It’s to those who think an emotional support animal is ALWAYS a scam, as much as it is to people that only compound the problem by trying to get their PET onto a flight with a bogus claim. It’s to attorneys that will jump on frivolous lawsuits backing clearly meritless lawsuits because they get paid no matter what. It’s to people who don’t understand that my dog likely causes them fewer troubles or anxieties on this flight than do their children to me. It’s to ALL OF US without bias because I assure you that little by little we are ALL jumping on one bandwagon or the next, whether to stand up for our own right to ________ or to protest your right to _______.

    I know, I know, my advice is likely to do nothing but draw criticism and ridicule, but so is my desire to find a happy life in a land where people embrace their differences, defend the rights of others’ rather than only their own and where unicorns roam free and rainbows truly are made of Skittles.

  2. Mikael,
    Let them criticize, I think that you’re right. Not that my opinion matters, but for what it does matter….I’m with you!


  3. Some idiot brought their “ESA” , a dog, on a Delta flight recently. The “trained ESA” bit another passenger in the face-the person who was bit was taken off plane to get medical attention. The dog owner walked away without being arrested. Hopefully, the owner of the phony ESA gets sued for thousands and regrets attempting to get a free ticket for Fido. As previously stated, a trained ESA would behave and not bite a stranger. The story also shows an undercover video where a woman paid $250 to get a phony ESA letter from a chiropractor.

  4. That dog that bit the fella on the Delta flight is just one of thousands of ESA dogs that have flown in the past few years. ESA letters from chiropractors are not legitimate and should not be accepted! Legitimate ESA letters are only from psychatrists and psychologists. This is why we can’t have nice things. I have a legit letter, not from a chiropractor.

  5. May says:
    October 27, 2017 at 9:52 am

    My shit doesn’t stink, and neither does my dogs. I’m selfish.

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