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By MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS

In January, someone tried to take a peacock on a United Airlines flight, claiming it was an emotional support animal (ESA). Last June, a 50-pound dog that was traveling on Delta as an ESA badly mauled the face of another passenger. So much for the friendly skies.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not opposed to the idea of ESAs. Animals can be an incredible balm to the human psyche even when it is in perfect working order. Mental health is extremely complex, and if somebody needs their dog with them to be able to manage, I’m not going to criticize. Fortunately, the TSA views ESAs as aids that allow people to live their lives, going a step beyond the job of “pet,” and so ESAs are allowed in airports and airplanes. Traveling with a disability can be challenging enough without the airlines placing undue burdens on the people who need these animals to get by.

On the other hand, when an airplane cabin starts to resemble a petting zoo, and passengers are being taken away by ambulance, clearly there is a flaw with the system. A big part of the problem, of course, is the irritating phenomenon of people pretending their dogs are ESAs, or even service animals, when they really aren’t.

Why would someone pretend to have an ESA or service dog, instead of admitting that their dog is a pet? For one thing, traveling with a pet can be challenging. People are understandably wary of putting their pets in cargo, given some tragedies that have occurred there. Whether in cargo or in the cabin, there are fees to be paid, and the airline may turn your pet away if there are already too many animals on the flight. ESAs and service dogs, however, sometimes travel for free, and are more likely to be accommodated in the cabin regardless of the number of animals on the airplane or the size and weight of the dog.

This does not change the fact that pretending your pet is an ESA is clearly unethical in all cases, and is criminal in some areas. There is quite simply a limit to the number of animals that can fit on a given airplane before things get disruptive. Like disabled parking permits, those spaces should be reserved for people who actually need them.

In an attempt to reduce abuse of the system, some airlines have begun to use more stringent restrictions on ESAs. Delta, for example, has quite an extensive list of animal species that are not permitted on board. United now requires customers with ESAs to bring “a veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal as well as confirming that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.”

Owners are notoriously bad at assessing their own animals’ behavior, so I can see why the airlines want to get a third party to vouch for the dog, but many veterinarians are wary of going on record stating that their patients have been trained to behave properly. For one thing, even a dog that is well-mannered under ordinary circumstances may find the conditions on an airplane to be a little much. Let’s face it, after standing in line at security, navigating the hubbub of the airport, and then getting squeezed for hours into a cramped space that makes deafening noises and ear-popping pressure changes, even the humans are just about ready to bite somebody. There is no way that I or any other veterinarian can tell whether a dog that behaves nicely in the clinic will continue to do so in flight.

People who genuinely need ESAs will be the ones to suffer if they can’t produce the paperwork the airlines now expect. Even service dogs from an accredited training program, which are expertly-trained to tolerate quite challenging conditions without causing trouble, may find it hard to get on board.

It remains to be seen how to best balance the needs of people with disabilities who rely on their animals to function and the other passengers’ basic expectation of reasonable safety. Veterinarians, representatives of the air travel industry, and disability advocates are attempting to work together to find a way to ensure that genuine service dogs and ESAs are accommodated without putting other passengers at risk. But one thing is clear: pretending your pet is a service animal is not okay.