Nov. 25, 2019 -- Carla Fitzgerald of southeast Wisconsin was operating a horse and carriage for work in 2013 when a car smashed into her. The carriage crumpled like a soda can, and Fitzgerald was thrown through the air, landing on a metal grate. It took her 5 months to relearn how to walk.
That’s when Daniel the duck became Fitzgerald’s emotional support animal (ESA). She had bought him for $6 at a fair the year before.
“It was the best $6 I ever spent,” says Fitzgerald, 40. “Daniel was very comforting. He would come lay on me, give me kisses and neck hugs, and just be there.”
When she travels, she brings Daniel -- who wears a diaper -- on flights with her, providing documentation from her doctor saying that Daniel is her emotional support animal.
Fitzgerald is among the growing number of people flying with furry and feathered companions for emotional support. According to the industry trade group Airlines for America, more than 1 million people brought emotional support animals on flights last year.
The rules are murky, and the increase in their use prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to offer clarifying guidance on the issue last August.
The guidelines state that airlines can deny allowing emotional support animals on flights based on size, weight, and age -- if the animal is younger than 4 months, they may not be allowed to board. The department is expected to release new regulations later this year.
Individual airlines have some leeway in how they interpret the rules. Delta Air Lines, for example, forbids the use of “pit bull type dogs” as emotional support animals. American Airlines may turn away animals other than dogs, cats, and miniature horses, and the same goes for JetBlue. Southwest Airlines only allows dogs and cats. Alaska Airlines specifies on its website that there are several animals not allowed, including ferrets, reptiles, and hedgehogs. All airlines require documentation from a doctor or mental health professional.
Airlines can also request behavioral assessment documents for the animal and health forms, and can turn away an animal if it threatens the well-being of other passengers.
Airports Offering Assistance, Too
The use of animals to relieve emotional distress and calm travel jitters is widespread, and even some airports provide these services. San Francisco International Airport has a program called the Wag Brigade that consists of 22 dogs and one unlikely addition: a good-natured pig named LiLou who parades around with red-painted toenails and steals the hearts of people passing through. All of them are therapy animals trained through the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and certified through SPCA’s Animal Assistsed Therapy Program.
“When we first launched the program, it was to ease stress,” says Jennifer Kazarian, manager of the Wag Brigade program. “But we have since found it was a way to connect with passengers.”
But taking animals on airplanes is a different story for many. Some in-flight disturbances have created controversy about emotional support animals in general. In July, a flight attendant was bitten on his hand by an emotional support dog during a Dallas-to-Greensboro, NC, flight and needed five stitches. Two passengers and their emotional support French bulldogs were told to leave a Norwegian Air flight from London to Austin, TX, in October when the dogs started showing signs of distress in the cabin.
Experts Question Benefits
Critics are skeptical of whether emotional support animals really serve a purpose, and are wary of people who may be abusing the system. Certain online services will provide a letter to document the need for a small fee, says Hal Herzog, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology at Western Carolina University.
“The problems with emotional support animals come from a variety of areas, including the fraud issue,” he says.
It is also important to know the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal, he says. A service animal falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and is trained to help a person do tasks that would otherwise be difficult because of a physical, mental, or intellectual disability. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, do not have to get special training.
Herzog says there is a lack of scientific evidence backing the need for emotional support animals, and there is doubt about whether there is any psychological benefit. But he does say it is a difficult area to study.
“The degree to which they alleviate anxieties associated with travel is unclear,” Herzog says. “At the very least, emotional support animals on planes should be restricted to dogs,” because they are trainable, people-friendly, and are comfortable around humans.
A Turkey Named Easter
Despite the skepticism, many people have unlikely emotional support animals. Jodie Smalley of Corvallis, OR, flew with an emotional support turkey named Easter after her husband died of esophageal cancer in 2015. Unfortunately, she had to put Easter to sleep in 2017 due to heart problems.
Smalley wants to spread the word that preconceived notions of many emotional support animals are often misguided. Her turkey’s calm demeanor helped soothe her, she says.
“People think about turkeys and imagine noisy gobbles, but Easter sat in my lap very quietly,” Smalley says. “She brought a lot of happiness to people. And she kept me from going down a dark hole.”