Um, no, federal regulators have decided: The nation’s skies no longer will be a sort of bad airborne set for a pop psychology version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Instead, owners of so-called emotional support animals must keep their menagerie off commercial flights.
The federal Transportation Department has issued new rules halting what had become, in pre-coronavirus times, a flashpoint between airlines, their crews, and a preponderance of passengers. They were in growing conflicts with owners of critters they claimed they could not be without.
Airlines complained that they were barraged by not just a few, legitimate requests to board bona fide, trained service dogs (as shown in AKC photo, above) but also by hundreds of thousands of demands for what effectively were pets to be flown in the human spaces for free. The companies successfully turned away reptiles, ferrets, rodents, spiders — and even in one case a performance artist’s sizable peacock.
Still, armed with often dubious letters from personal physicians, passengers flocked aboard with poorly trained creatures, including dogs, cats, turtles, rabbits, and pigs. They too often bit, scratched, and acted in hostile fashion toward air crews and other passengers, not to mention that they defecated, urinated, and acted altogether like, well, animals.
As the fur flew with other paying people on flights, the airlines complained that they were stuck, as regulations for years had allowed animals in jet cabins, especially if physicians asserted they were important to patients’ emotional well-being.
Federal officials, in agreeing to re-examine the rules on creatures great and small, said changes were needed because of abuses that undercut the genuine needs of people with disabilities and called into question their service animals, mostly dogs, that undergo rigorous training that gives them unique capacities and discipline. As the Washington Post reported of cabin-permitted critters:
“The new rule now defines a service animal to be a dog that is ‘individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability’ and limits the number of service animals a person can travel with to two. It also requires airlines to treat psychiatric service animals as they would other service animals. Emotional support animals aren’t considered service animals under the new rule, which drew more than 15,000 public comments before it was finalized. Although the rule does not bar them from traveling in passenger cabins, airlines will not be required to accommodate them.”
The Associated Press reported this, too:
“Airlines will be able to require owners to vouch for the dog’s health, behavior, and training. Airlines can require people with a service dog to turn in paperwork up to 48 hours before a flight, but they can’t bar those travelers from checking in online like other passengers. Airlines can require service dogs to be leashed at all times, and they can bar dogs that show aggressive behavior.”
For owners who had made exaggerated claims before about their pets, they still have options, if they insist on getting them over distances fast, as in air travel, the news service reported:
“The new rule will force passengers with emotional-support animals to check them into the cargo hold — and pay a pet fee — or leave them at home. The agency estimated airlines will gain up to $59.6 million a year in pet fees.”
With the pandemic slamming travel of all types, it may be a while, of course, before most of us see the benefits of crowded flights, calmer without all sorts of four-footed companions aboard. Still, the regulators’ actions may be timely, because other reports show that Americans are, rightly, going crazier for their pets during difficult times.
The cheer and companionship that pets provide not only has been a studied boon to people’s mental health and well-being during the pandemic, it also has made sales and adoption of the four-footed more popular than ever. Which could be great — if folks do not try to get their furry pals up in the air, right?
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to maintain their mental health and well-being, avoiding, for example, abuse of dangerous drugs. The pandemic has exposed huge gaps in the U.S. health care system for desperately needed mental health care and services to help Americans deal with substance abuse. If animals can assist even a fraction of us, so our situations do not worsen — with isolation and loneliness, as well as the need for prompted exercise — we should be encouraging responsible pet ownership to the nth degree.
Please note the emphasis on responsible ownership and care of wonderful companions. They can be an invaluable part of our holiday festivities, but we owe them increased attention and care, so they do not suffer seasonal harms. Think twice, too, as to whether your household — notably if it has kids and they have appropriate holiday expectations — will be a beneficial home for a pet given or received as a gift. As a leading animal group cautions:
“The ASPCA recommends the giving of pets as gifts only to people who have expressed a sustained interest in owning one, and the ability to care for it responsibly. We also recommend that pets be obtained from animal shelters, rescue organizations, friends, family, or responsible breeders—not from places where the source of the animal is unknown or untrusted. If the recipient is under 12 years old, the child’s parents should be ready and eager to assume care for the animal. If the gift is a surprise, the gift-giver should be aware of the recipient’s lifestyle and schedule—enough to know that the recipient has the time and means be a responsible owner. The recipient’s schedule should also be free enough to spend necessary time to help assure an easy transition into the home. This is especially important during the holidays and other busy times.”