New DOT rules apply for Emotional Support Animals: What every ESA owner should be aware of

Jan 19, 2021 | Dogs, Emotional Support Animals

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has declared the finalized rules, which will allow emotional support animals to be treated like ordinary pets by the airlines. This has been announced by DOT on December 2nd, 2020. On the other hand, service dogs will still be allowed on flights without being imposed with any additional fees or charges. However, the people who bring their service dogs on a plane must complete the recently adopted federal forms.

The changes made within the rules will come into effect by 30 days after those specific rules have been published in the federal register officially. This suggests that these rules will be made applicable by January 2021. Anyhow, airlines are still required to continue offering services to emotional support animals until the new rules come into effect.

Today, in our article, we will be discussing the actual terms and conditions applicable to ESA owners, the situation of ESAs on flights, and the rules imposed on people owning service dogs.

1. What are the changes that might take place because of these rules?


Abiding by the current rules for ESAs while traveling on flights, airlines should allow emotional support animals to accompany their owners if the owners have the necessary documentation acquired from their licensed mental healthcare professional. According to those specific rules, people who own an emotional support animal can board the cabin of a flight along with their ESA without having to pay any unnecessary fees or charges. These privileges have been enjoyed by ESA owners for over a few years. Nonetheless, the new changes that have been made to these rules are removing that specific privilege from those people who own ESAs.

Because of these new changes that have been made, airlines will no longer be able to offer specific privileges, i.e., accommodation that they have been offering to the ESA owners for many days. As per the new modifications made in the rules, emotional support animals would be treated just like normal pets, which means they would be subject to the same extra charges and fees that are imposed upon normal pets.

Subject to the changes that have been made to the new laws, airlines aren’t legally obliged to allow accommodations for emotional support animals like they used to do. Now, airlines can choose to treat ESAs in the same that they actually treat other pets while imposing them with the same amount of additional fees as well as the restrictions that would be imposed upon pets. This means that ESA owners would have to end up paying huge fees for having their animal companions along with them. In the worst-case scenario, the emotional support animal might even be moved to the cargo section of the plane, which would be very inconvenient for an ESA owner.

To make things a little bit better for the people owning ESAs, it is not a mandatory option for the airlines to treat ESAs in the same way that they generally treat other pets. The airlines only have the ability to classify ESAs as pets and it is not compulsory for them to do so.

In simple words, airlines will have full authority whether they would abide by the new laws regarding boarding emotional support animals or they can allow people to have ESAs while traveling with the help of their flights. They might allow, make restrictions, or even prohibit emotional support animals. Only when the new rules come into effect, we might be able to have an idea about the airlines that will follow the new rules and the airlines that will still allow ESAs to travel along with their owners.

There is still hope for ESA owners as these rules are not mandatory and the final decision will solely depend on the decision made by the airlines about new rules regarding ESAs, whether they will be treated as pets or will still continue to have the privileges that they used to have.


2. Can I currently travel along with my ESA?

There is time until 30 days for the new rules and restrictions to come into effect after they have been officially published within the Federal Register. This means there is time until January 2021 for these particular rules and regulations to be followed. Therefore, people that are willing to travel in December 2020 will still be enjoying the benefit of having their emotional support animal with them while traveling on a plane.

If you fall under the category of the people that are willing to travel in December 2020, you must make sure to contact your airlines and provide them all the necessary documents at least 48 hours in advance before your flight commences.


3. What will be the situation once the DOT rules will come into effect?

By somewhere around 2021, all the new rules that have been set up by DOT will come into effect and by then airlines would decide whether or not they would follow the new rules or following them under certain restrictions. There is a possibility that some airlines might follow these new rules and classify ESAs as normal pets.

If you are a person that owns an ESA and is willing to travel in the year 2021, then you might be having a little bit of inconvenience. As bad as it might sound, people who will travel along with their ESAs on planes in 2021 might not have the same advantages they have now.

However, it is better to check the rules and regulations regarding ESAs every now and then. In case you are traveling with your pet on a plane that is subject to these new rules, your ESA will be treated in the same a traditional pet would be treated, and the same fees would be made applicable as per the rates that would be applicable to normal pets.


4. What are the circumstances if I happen to have a service dog?

According to the new rules that have been set up by DOT, airlines must still continue to allow service dogs including psychiatric service dogs. The new rules are designed in such a way that service animals would be subject to ‘ADA’ (Americans with Disabilities Act). Based on this act, a service animal should be a dog of whatever breed and should have received particular training, which is necessary to perform a task or work for that specific person with a disability. As for the disability, it can be physical, sensory, intellectual, or any other form.

Same as the ADA, the new rules by DOT also have a limitation for the service animal to be a dog in order to be allowed by airlines. For letting people bring along their service dog, airlines would require passengers to fill out and submit a transport form of DOT, which is known as ‘Service Animal Air Transportation Form’. If the flight journey exceeds eight hours, airlines might also require the passengers to submit DOT’s Relief Form, which is called ‘Service Animal Relief Attestation’.

Service dog handlers should also make a signed attestation that concludes their dog’s good behavior and training in their Transport Form. In the Relief Form, the service dog handlers should attest either of the following details given below:

  1. The service dog won’t have to relieve itself during the flight journey; or
  2. The service dog can be able to relieve itself on a flight in a way that won’t be an issue related to health or sanitization, under a specific description of that procedure.

In contrast to the documentation required in the case of ESAs, which are undergoing a phase of exclusion, the documents for service dogs are self-certifying documents. Some people even suggest that these changes might lead to an increase in fraudulent activities, while the primary intention of bringing these changes is to decrease these activities. The main reason for the rise in these activities is as there is no requirement of a licensed mental healthcare professional or any other third-party medical professional for carrying out this process.


5. Is an emotional support dog considered a service dog?

To put it in a simple way, an emotional support animal is not similar to a service dog. The major difference is their purpose in a person’s life. The primary objective of a service dog is to assist/aid in completing tasks of a person having any particular disability, who cannot perform those specific tasks. On the other hand, Emotional Support Animals won’t have to undergo any sort of specific training as their aim is to provide comfort with nothing but just their presence and companionship.

Service dogs are used to help with various tasks along with some specific tasks such as reminding an owner to take their medication, orienting as well as bringing back an owner to the current time and place, especially while dealing with post-traumatic stress, providing physical help while an owner has a panic attack, etc. According to DOT’s new rules, a person traveling on a plane with their service dog should attest that their canine companion has acquired the necessary training to assist with their owner’s disability.


6. What will the future of Emotional Support Animals be like?

After DOT has proposed the new changes made regarding ESAs, thousands of people made some serious comments defending the preservation of rights for emotional support animal owners. One specific person even wrote to DOT saying that “ESAs, such as mine, are the best option suggested by a healthcare professional to deal with various types of disorders such as stress, anxiety, depression, and others. I have PTSD as well as anxiety and I would never hesitate to testify about the benefits of having an ESA. It is much better than the medicinal alternatives that I should have if not for my ESA and less dangerous compared to those harmful drugs.”

As stated by many of the licensed mental health professionals in opposition to these new rules, the particular changes that have been made have a negative impact on people suffering from mental disabilities in contrast to physical conditions. People belonging to disability advocacy groups wrote in support of ESA owners. Especially, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network determined that emotional support animals help with sensory regulation, anxiety, and assist people to concentrate on social communication. They also said that, without ESAs, most people suffering from autism or such specific mental issues might not be able to travel conveniently.

Some other particular advocacy groups such as PVA (Paralyzed Veterans for America) announced that these new rules are unfair for low-income individuals. Generally, traveling with a pet can cost up to $175, and people having mental disabilities mostly fall under the category of low-income individuals. These rules might make it inconvenient for many ESA owners to travel alongside their animal companions.

Some noticeable disability groups also mentioned the significance and advantages of ESAs and their role in the treatment of mental health disorders. On behalf of some individuals, the DREDF (Disability Rights Education Defense Fund) wrote “Having an ESA is one of the most effective options available for alleviating a person’s mental health symptoms. This is because in the case of some people medications haven’t been proven to be successful enough or there might not be any other efficient option to treat their illnesses as much as having an ESA can.”

Regardless of the statements that have been made, DOT seriously chose to cut off the privileges offered to ESAs while traveling on planes. No offense intended, but the chances for ESA owners to have their animals on a flight have flown away. The decision of whether or not to board ESAs and how they will be treated, will now solely depend on the airlines’ choice. Anyhow, to soothe things for ESA owners, there is a possibility that some airlines might recognize the benefits of ESAs to their owners and allow ESAs to travel along with their owners by making some amendments in their policies.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that ESA owners are completely out of the benefits of having their furry friends. People having ESA letters will still be offered some privileges as per the federal housing laws. According to these specific laws, ESA owners won’t have to pay any extra charges or fees for having them, even if the building that they are living in has a strict set of rules against pets (no pets policy). Most states in the USA came forward and started having their own protection policies for emotional support animals in housing. Therefore, options of traveling on a plane with an ESA have been reduced, ESA owners will still be offered protection under the housing regulations.

DOT might have cut off the rights of ESA owners on planes, but if you are a person suffering from a mental disorder and the companionship of an ESA supports you emotionally, then it is very crucial for you to affirm the importance of that bond. Most importantly, the trend of people seeking comfort as well as relief for their mental health problems through an ESA is not likely to stop. An Emotional Support Animal can really make a huge difference in the life of a person suffering from most types of mental health disorders. If you are a person that is having mental health issues and think that you might benefit from having an ESA, then please don’t hesitate to seek professional help.


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