The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) differentiates between emotional support animals (ESAs) and service animals. A service animal is specifically a dog (miniature horses are sometimes an exception) with specific training to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability (including physical, sensory) or mental illness[1]. These tasks can include mechanical ones, such as pulling wheelchairs, reminding individuals to take their medication, or even interrupting self-mutilation of an individual with a dissociative personality disorder.

Conversely, ESAs, which also include therapy dogs, do not fall under the category of service animals. They can be used as part of a medical treatment plan for a patient, providing companionship, but they do not have special training to perform specific tasks. ESAs can be prescribed for those with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, to name a few invisible disabilities[1]

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the two types of animals is training, or lack thereof. And yet, this difference plays a significant role in the acceptance of both animal types as supports for those suffering from mental health issues.

One of the biggest controversies between the two kinds of animals exists in air travel rules and regulations. There have been numerous examples of ESAs being viewed as disruptive. One of the most infamous stories happened in 2014, when a woman attempted to bring her 70-lb emotional support pig onto a flight with her[2].

This is just one manifestation of one of the biggest problems with ESAs: Due to the lack of clear understanding of an ESA’s role, passengers who are traveling with normal pets (i.e., non-ESAs) have taken advantage of this designation, in order for their pet to fly for free[3]. However, if illegitimate, an untrained animal could not only pose a physical danger to other passengers, but could also depict legitimate ESAs in a bad light–unfairly affecting individuals who use their animals appropriately and truly suffer from mental disorders.

There are generally modifications to practices, policies, and procedures when it comes to accommodating service animals in public places. Service animals are expected to be properly trained, to behave well, and to be adequately controlled by their handler. Conversely, ESAs are not required to have training, and the same regulations for service animals do not apply to them as they are under a different, more flexible designation. By claiming an animal is an ESA, airlines may allow the animal to not only fly for free, but to fly in cabin as well.

Rules and regulations trying to minimize this loophole have not gone without profiteering. For example, medical documentation less than a year old must be provided for ESAs and service animals must be wearing identifying equipment[1]. Yet, ESAs are still easily exploited by passengers. Some individuals have even admitted to faking answers with psychological online assessments to garner a letter as documentation[4].

Furthermore, airline staff are not always compliant with the regulations that exist, either avoiding to ask for the documentation or not reading it thoroughly. Part of the problem is also that airlines do not want to build a reputation of being under-sensitive and overstepping boundaries into passengers’ personal lives, resulting in the improper questioning of individuals who claim mental health issues.

So what further work needs to be done?

For one, we need more stringent monitoring on various levels of control. On the ground (literally), there need to be more rigorous medical evaluations. As of now, passengers can complete any free online questionnaire or falsify information over a phone conversation, thereby garnering some sort of evidence that they need an ESA. In order to protect those who genuinely need the mental and emotional support, in-person evaluations should be conducted, and a medical letter obtained.

Higher up the chain, there should be more personnel education and a work-environment culture change, to ensure that staff understands mental health issues, and can establish best practices when servicing an individual who needs a support animal.

Furthermore, there should be more clarification in defining what is allowed where. While the ADA specifies that animals may be used for disabilities but not emotional support, the Air Carrier Access Act’s definition does allow animals for individuals who need them for emotional support[3]. With these two pieces of conflicting legislations, it is no wonder there can be confusion and controversy over what is allowed and what is not.

Finally, there are forces like Corey Hudson, the CEO of Canine Companions for Independence, who is taking action against these ‘false support animals’. Often, false support animals escape detection as identifying equipment and uniforms are easily accessible and often bought online.  Hudson is currently petitioning for a registry to certify assistance dogs, and to regulate the sale of the equipment and uniforms for these animals[4]. This would reassure airlines of the legitimacy of an animal, and could also act as a learning point for the rest of the passengers and members of public.

Ultimately, for the sake of those who appropriately use these animals, and for the health and safety of fellow travellers, a better understanding of these animals, their roles, and their handlers, should become common practice. Not just in airports, either, but in other common public places. And perhaps one day, trained pigs will be allowed to fly once again.


By: Eva Huang

Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah

Image by: Jenny Soriano




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