ESA Travel Service Cats in a suitcase

Service Cats – New ESA Rules for Travel in 2021

ESA Cat Owners Adjust to New DOT Rules for Plane Travel in 2021

Most of the Department of Transportation’s new regulations don’t really make waves. When they announced the changes that would affect plane travel for emotional support animals (ESAs), a lot of people who relied on their emotional support cat were unhappy with the decision. Why did people have this reaction – and why did the DOT have to change the rules in the first place? A little backstory is in order.

First of all, it helps if you understand the basic differences between emotional support animals and service animals. For one thing, they have different purposes. According to the National Service Animal Registry, ESAs provide emotional support (as you probably guessed), and they’re chosen by their owners based on things like overall temperament and personality. Service animals, on the other hand, are specifically trained to fulfill a specific task. These include leading a visually impaired person or pulling a wheelchair. In their own ways, both types of animals can provide vital services to their owners. 

The main difference between them, though, is in their respective levels of training. ESAs can be highly trained, but they don’t have to be – and most of them aren’t. Service animals, however, are required to complete years of training before being matched with an owner. 

What does this Mean for Me and my ESA

How does this apply to taking your ESA cat on planes and DOT regulations? Well, before 2021, ESAs had the same status as service animals where the DOT was concerned; this meant that they were allowed to board planes without crates or fees. The highly trained service animals didn’t usually cause any problems. It was the untrained ESAs they were unpredictable at best, and dangerous at worst.

Passengers had to deal with instances of excessive noise. They dealt with animals wandering through seats or inappropriately relieved themselves. They even had cases of aggression that sometimes resulted in injury.

What could the airlines do to fix the problem? Pretty much nothing. The DOT allowed them to ban certain species; they could also deny entry to oversized or threatening animals. In many cases, though, the dangerous behaviour didn’t start until the ESA was in a crowded plane cabin. So that didn’t do much to reduce the number of incidents. 

As more and more people took their ESAs onto planes, another issue came to light – the prevalence of fake emotional support animals. Some pet owners wanted to avoid spending money on pet fees and crates. While others didn’t want their pet put in a hot cargo hold for hours. Whatever the reason, the numbers of ESAs on planes skyrocketed in tandem with the availability of fake ESA documentation online. 

The Documentation

This documentation was easy to manufacture, as it happens – especially since it was just one document. Any ESA owner who wanted to fly with their animal had to present a letter from their mental healthcare provider. This letter would identify the cat or other type of emotional support animal. Since there’s no official registration for ESAs, this is the closest they could get to bona fide credentials.

It turned out to be close enough.

Airlines couldn’t tell the difference between real and fake psychiatrist’s letters. So one animal after another was let onto the planes. 

The DOT clearly considered ESAs and service animals to be important to their owners at one time, otherwise they wouldn’t have put both types of animals in the same category for years. Even if the airlines acknowledged this, they still had their reputations to think of. Plenty of people already thought that airlines put profits over passengers, but risking unpleasant or even harmful interactions with animals on a flight was a whole different ball game. Airlines started to put increasing pressure on the DOT to do something about the problem, so finally, in 2018, the DOT announced that they would be reconsidering their stance on ESAs and air travel. 

Meanwhile, constant online reactions to ESAs really didn’t help their case. People would snap photos of pigs, miniature horses, or monkeys that were brought onto planes and share them online. Even if the responses to these particular animals were positive, it just added to the general impression that ESAs were strange and unpredictable. And then there were people like the woman who (unsuccessfully) tried to convince airline staff that her male peacock was an ESA. She may not have gotten onto the plane with her gigantic pet, but it was just more proof of how bold people had become with their fraudulent ESA claims.

The DOT and Changes to the Regulations

Between one thing and another, the DOT obviously thought it was necessary to change its regulations. As of January 11, 2021, emotional support animals now have to follow the same regulations as ordinary pets if they want to travel by air. This means their owners have to put them in crates, pay the relevant pet fees, and allow them to be stowed in the cargo hold – which leaves a lot of people without their ESAs during a flight that was probably already stressful enough with their support animals. 

While service animal owners don’t have any drastic regulation changes to worry about, they do have a few new details to catch up on. 

The updated regulations decisively fix almost all of the problems that airlines were bringing up to the DOT. However, plenty of people think that they took things too far. For instance, they could have at least waived the pet fees, given that most people are bringing their ESAs as a matter of necessity. Given how long the DOT took to publish new regulations, though, it’s likely that they won’t make any additional changes in the near future. Even so, it’s important to remember that with enough effort and awareness, change is still possible.

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