Airlines Wrestling with Issue of 'Emotional Support' Pets

People who rely on emotional support pets like cats and pigs to treat a diagnosed mental illness may soon have to leave them at home when they hop on a plane, Newsradio1200 WOAI reports.

An industry support group that represents both Texas-based American and Southwest Airlines has shot a letter to the Department of Transportation, asking for tighter limits on what qualifies as support animal.  They want it limited to only working dogs that are trained to a do a task for someone with a disability.

"Airlines have become increasingly concerned that untrained service animals pose a risk to the health and safety of its crewmembers and passengers. Carriers have reported increased incidents of misbehavior including urination, defecation, and biting," the group writes.

But groups that advocate for the disabled argue that changes would impose burdens that go beyond what the Department has indicated airlines may impose on passengers with disabilities. 

Attorney Denette Vaughn with Disability Rights Texas tells News radio 1200 WOAI that studies show emotional support pets are useful for those with a diagnosed illness.

"It allows people with mental health disorders, anxiety issues or PTSD have some sort of comfort," she explains.

Earlier this year, Texas-based American Airlines announced changes to its emotional support animal policy, restricting animal types allowed.

"American, like other airlines, has experienced an increase in customers who are transporting a service or support animal onboard the aircraft - more than 40 percent from 2016 to 2017," the carrier writes

.But Vaughn says there are already strict rules in place to make sure the animals allowed are safe and there are safeguards against fraud.  

"Airlines can currently require that somebody who wants to bring on an emotional support animal provide some documentation about that," she says.  She says the 48 hours' advance notice requirement prevents passengers from traveling in the event of an emergency.  

The passenger must provide a form, signed by a licensed veterinarian, providing information about the medical history of the animal.

The Department of Transportation is taking comments through Monday on proposed rule changes.

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