When pigs… and miniature horses fly

When I check in for a flight, I’ll pray to the air travel gods that I win the flying lotto – an empty row all to myself. It’s not that I’m anti-social, but when you fly alone (as I often do) there’s a real risk you’ll end up sitting next to a less than ideal travel companion. Maybe a chatty stranger on a red-eye flight, an unappeasable baby or someone who’s enjoyed a few too many at the airport bar to ease their flying nerves. You assume the risk of sharing an armchair with a stranger when you book your airline ticket, but the last thing you’d expect is to be sharing a row with a miniature horse.

Source: Alice Coates, 2019

If you didn’t read about this at the time, perhaps you heard about the woman whose emotional support peacock was turned away at the check in counter? Or when a woman flushed her squirrel down the toilet following a boarding rejection? Headlines about exotic travel companions have become tabloid staples over recent years and it’s all due to an interesting federal policy in the USA.

Federal Law

Under the USA Federal Fair Housing Act, a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities has the right to live and travel with an assistance animal.  These assistance animals perform tasks, services or provide emotional support for a person with a disability.

Most international disability laws include the allowance of a service animal in living and traveling situations. America is unique in its flexible and generous definition of an emotional support animal, and its invitation for their free passage on airlines.

Service vs. Emotional Support

It’s extremely important to note the difference between service animals and emotional support animals. In Australia it’s likely you’ve encountered a service animal before; they are often highly trained dogs and assist people with a variety of disabilities to live their lives.

Emotional support animals on the other hand are a more contentious breed (pun intended). At present, in America all that is required to enlist an animal as being emotionally supportive is a letter from a therapist, an ID card and emotional support animal paraphernalia (think high-vis animal jackets).

According to Dr.  Ellen Hendriksen of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, the following differentiation apply;

The validity of a service animal is indisputable but when it comes to emotional support animals the facts are less clear. Because emotional support animals do not have to be specifically trained, hone a skill or preform any function beyond existing, some scientist (and fellow passengers on planes) are dubious about their validity.

Delta airlines flew 250,000 service and E.S animals last year, not including those in the cargo hold; a 200% increase from 2015. This drastic increase has some skeptics wondering whether the appeal of the right to live and travel with your pet free of charge is leading to abuse of the system. But airlines and businesses often err on the inclusive side so as not to prevent someone with a valid disability from having a service they need – better to let a peacock on a plane than have bad PR.

The Diagnostic Qualifiers

The broadness of the range of diagnoses that qualify people for an emotional support animal is vast. According to Service Dog Certifications, to be eligible for an E.S animal you must have one of the following : learning disorders, ADD, sexual disorders, cognitive impairment, tics, motor skill impairment, bipolar, gender anxiety disorder or struggle with gender identity, substance abuse issues, autism, depression, sever anxiety, PTSD or cognitive disorders.

But these parameters are flexible, so long as your psychologist has recommended an E.S animal you are eligible for one. And in order to comply with the Federal Fair Housing Act, these E.S animals must alleviate one or more of the identified symptoms of effects of a person’s existing disability.

Under these broad definitions much of any population qualifies for E.S animals – I myself have mild ADD and am dyslexic, under the above definitions I could apply for an emotional support turkey, ant eater or kangaroo (all genuine examples of animals that have previously qualified). This is the element that science questions; are these emotional support animals providing therapeutic roles benefiting the patient or is it simply that humans find general animal companionship comforting? And if the latter is the case then has the lined been blurred between comforting pet and therapy?

What do the experts think?

According a 2016 study in Professional Psychology : Research and Practice journal, even psychologists aren’t sure. Their study concluded that people did feel comforted when interacting with E.S animals but the level to which this could be classified as therapy was undetermined and the positive effects could only be measured on a case by case basis.

In another study, Yale University researchers were quoted to say, “We just don’t know whether they work or how much they work” – but some physiologists are asking “Does the uncertainty matter?”. In a world where anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication is highly prescribed, alternative forms of accessible therapy are a necessity. Science has not yet found a measurable mental health benefit of E.S animals, but it has consistently shown that when dealing with mental health issues, people report feeling less depressed and anxious when interacting with animals and these effects can be long term (click here for more information).

Closing Comments

An emotional support animal can offer much more than just comfort- the responsibility to care for them gets people out of bed in the morning. Walks force people to socialize. Anxieties are quieted when the animals are around, and people report their lives to be much her happier with their E.S animals. Despite not preforming any role beyond existing, these animals can make remarkable differences in people’s lives.

But US Federal policy may need to catch up to reality; the prospect of flying seated next to a horse,turkey or even a poorly trained dog is uncomfortable and due to the lack of training many of these animals may be subjected to undue stress themselves as a result of their roles. At this point psychologist and fellow passengers can agree that more study is required in this field.

One Response to “When pigs… and miniature horses fly”

  1. Kaih Mitchell says:

    Wow, bizarre that you could take a kangaroo on a plane in the US as a support animal and can’t even have them as pets in Australia. I’m sure there are many legitimate health benefits to having a support animal, but also plenty of room for abusing the system. We just need designer hand-luggage for your Chihuahua.