Emotional Support Animals on Planes
Emotional support animals (ESA) are pets that provide emotional support to people with mental health issues and disabilities. They are not guide dogs/service dogs, and they are therefore not protected by the same laws, but they can play a very important role in an individual’s treatment.
You can take your ESA with you anywhere you go, and you may be afforded more freedom than with other pets.
But what happens when you fly? Can you take an ESA on a flight from the United Kingdom? And if so, how?
What are the Rules Concerning Emotional Support Animals?
A few years ago, social media feeds were filled with stories of exotic animals boarding US-based airlines in the name of “emotional support”. The issue stemmed from the fact that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) included emotional support animals in the same category as service animals, and it included a pretty loose definition of what that animal could be.
In essence, a law designed to allow disabled individuals to take service dogs on flights led to a situation where ducks and even miniature horses were boarding planes.
As always, this raised some questions on this side of the Atlantic and mistakenly led some people to believe that the same rules applied here.
But…they didn’t, and they still don’t.
Firstly, the DOT revised its rules in 2021. It now specifically covers dogs trained to aid disabled individuals. The extract below is from the US Department of Transportation site, it clearly sets out the DOT's current stance:
'Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal means a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Animal species other than dogs, emotional support animals, comfort animals, companionship animals, and service animals in training are not service animals.'
www.transportation.gov. (n.d.). Service Animals | US Department of Transportation. [online] Available at: https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals.
Secondly, the UK operates very differently. We do have laws that protect service animals like guide dogs, but they don’t extend to a broader category of animals.
Are Emotional Support Animals Allowed on Flights in the UK?
The rules vary by airline. Some allow dogs that are used for assistance/support, many don’t allow any animals for this purpose. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can simply rock up to the gate with your pooch and then claim that it helps you to relax. Arguably, all pet owners could make that claim (because when they’re not making noise or raising hell, pets are relaxing).
There is no official registration process for an ESA, which further complicates matters. You can register with the Emotional Support Animals UK Registration Club, but it’s unlikely to be enough to get your pet on a plane.
Of the airlines that do accept ESAs, many require them to be recognised by official organisations like the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs UK. You must also present the documentation proving this registration.
Which Airlines Allow Emotional Support Animals?
If you have an ESA and are booking a flight, you should contact the airline in advance and ask about their rules. Don’t expect them to immediately accept your pet, even if it is registered. They set their own rules and are not legally required to recognise these animals.
Here’s what some of the biggest airlines say about ESA:
- British Airways: Doesn’t allow emotional support animals. With the exception of service dogs, all animals must be kept in the hold.
- Ryanair: Allows recognised guide dogs and assistance dogs if supporting evidence is supplied. Some routes are excluded, including those in and out of Israel and Morocco.
- easyJet: Registered assistance/guide dogs are allowed on flights to and from EU countries. There are exclusions for many non-EU countries.
- Wizz Air: Assistance dogs may be allowed if documentation is provided at least 48 hours before the flight. A maximum of 1 dog is allowed per person and it must not take up a seat.
- Jet2: Only dogs are allowed as emotional support animals and supporting documentation must be provided. Always contact the airline at least a few days before the flight so that arrangements can be made.
- Virgin Atlantic: Emotional support dogs are permitted if the airline is contacted at least 72 hours before the flight. You will be asked for the age and breed of the dog, as well as documentation to prove that it is trained.
- TUI Airways: Emotional support dogs and cats are allowed, but only on flights to and from the United States and only if the airline is informed at least 48 hours before the flight.
Can I fly with an anxiety support dog?
Probably not, at least not in the UK. As noted above, assistance dogs/guide dogs are accepted by most airlines, but these are trained dogs that have been certified by specific organisations. If your pet has not undergone this training and doesn’t have certification, it’s unlikely it will be allowed. This is true even if you have a note from a doctor or psychiatrist.
Always contact your airline in advance to confirm.
What does an emotional support animal need to travel?
Even if you have been granted permission to fly with an ESA, you may still need to jump through a few hoops. For instance, the pet will typically need a valid Pets Passport and/or medical documentation. As noted above, proof of official registration might be needed, and the dog will need to wear a harness or jacket that identifies it as a guide/assistance dog.
Do I need to pay for my pet to board a flight?
If your animal is a recognised assistance dog with supporting documentation, it should be able to travel in the cabin for free. The rules differ from airline to airline, but as long as it doesn’t take up a seat, it should be fine. If such evidence is not provided, it may need to go in the hold, at which point additional charges will apply.
Can guide dogs be quarantined?
It can happen, and there is precedence, but you can guard against the risks by speaking with the airline in advance and ensuring that all of the necessary steps are followed. These steps include providing Pet Passports and other documentation.
It’s fair to say that US laws concerning emotional support animals were very relaxed prior to 2020. That is no longer the case though and it has never been true here in the United Kingdom. It’s hard to imagine a situation where an emotional support horse or duck could make it into the cabin of a plane departing from the UK.
Even cats and dogs are rarely accepted, and most of the time, the only assistance dogs allowed are ones that have been trained and certified to help blind or disabled individuals. If your pet doesn’t fit this mould, it’ll either need to stay at home or travel in the hold.
Either way, you should call the airline at least a few days before your flight to discuss arrangements and alternative options.