Op-Ed: Media and industry sneering at service animals must stop

Google “emotional support pig” if you haven’t already. Read the sneering and loud cries of “fakery!”, and not just from the usual tabloid sources, with the usual sarcastic scare quotes around “emotional support animal”.

At a time of year when many in the United States are traveling to be with family and give thanks, and when many worldwide are preparing for the season of good cheer, the number of people willing to pillory anyone traveling with a service animal as a fraud or faker is depressing.

And allow me to be the first to congratulate my many colleagues in the media and aviation industry on their sudden qualification as mental health experts, now counting themselves qualified to decide from afar whether a particular person-animal combination qualifies as therapeutic.

The unqualified armchair psychiatry needs to stop. So does the negative narrative about emotional support animals. For a start, disparaging emotional support animals also denigrates having a need for them. People with mental health problems are stigmatized in ways that people with physical health problems often are not.

I know several people who live with issues on the anxiety-depression mental health spectrum, whose emotional support animals are vital to their living healthy, fulfilled lives. Vital to traveling to see friends and family at an anxious time of year. Vital to being able, some days, to get out of bed. These people are not shirkers, cheats or liars. They have very real problems and it is not for anyone else to judge whether those problems are “real” or not.

I also know several people who openly claim to have wrangled a doctor’s certification in order to bring their pet on board as an emotional support animal. At least one of those people is actually keeping their not insignificant mental health diagnosis a secret from many friends and family, some of who trigger and exacerbate that condition. Being able to joke that their (small, well-behaved) dog is with them because of loose airline regulation is the difference between being able to travel and not.

Veterans are often among the groups who benefit significantly from service and emotional support animals, with 300,000 veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) according to data in a 2012 Smithsonian Magazine article. Often, veterans (and particularly combat veterans) find it difficult to accept the need for help, especially given the societal stigma against having mental health needs.

Organizations like Paws for Purple Hearts, Vets Adopt Pets, Dogs 4 Disabled Veterans and Patriot Paws do admirable work matching service members living with physical and psychological disabilities with animals, with a growing evidence base that suggests there are tangible benefits for these groups of veterans.

“Research is underway to better understand if dogs can provide a disability service for persons with PTSD. VA [Veterans Affairs dept] has started a research study to determine if there are things a dog can do for a veteran with PTSD that would qualify the animal as a Service Dog for PTSD,” says the National Center for PTSD, which is currently examining the medical science around the issue. It seems that there is a desire on the part of airlines, cabin crew and the traveling public to require some additional certification to “catch the fakers” and verify that an animal is medically necessary.

Airlines already have time-consuming processes that already restrict the ability of people with disabilities to travel. United, for example, requires 48 hours’ notice and medical certification for service animals. Traveling at short notice on United would seem to be off-limits for anyone requiring a service animal. The certification process on other US airlines (Delta, American, Southwest, JetBlue) is similar, though without an explicit time window requirement. Imagine having to delay a visit to see a sick or dying relative — already a time bound to be stressful for people requiring emotional support — because of the paperwork.

People living with mental health issues deserve understanding, empathy and whatever assistance they need while traveling, not disdain and obstructive inconvenience.

9 Comments

  1. Les Posen

    John,

    Your sentiments are in the right place, I feel.

    But the OpEd here needs more fleshing out, re support animals, assistance animals, pets which offer emotional comfort, etc.

    I’m talking of those which have received some kind of testing and certification for which the pax has evidence to display, and those who want their pets with them in the cabin because they feel better when this occurs, both for themselves and their pets.

    Perhaps a follow up article which articulates the major airline policies along with a sample certification and its process would be worth your and your readers’ time?

    • Thanks Les — it seems this has really hit a nerve. I’m very keen indeed to follow up with my usual levels of research, but I saw so much slating of emotional support animals, including from people who really should know better.

      Quite frankly, I rather think that the current abuse of the system could be fixed by a meeting between the airlines and the FAA to clarify the lines around FSAT 04-01A, the implementation of which has led to a lot of woolly edges. I think there is also a question of a clash of ADA accommodations that needs to be examined and some consistent guidelines drawn up.

      If you (or any passing readers) have any particular thoughts or experiences to share offline, I would be very interested to hear them — john@walton.travel will reach me.

  2. Dear Mr. Posen, You say, “People living with mental health issues deserve understanding, empathy and whatever
    assistance they need while traveling, not disdain and obstructive inconvenience.” We, in Guide Dog Users, Inc., couldn’t agree more. However, a separate, but equally important, component to our acceptance of emotional support animals is our firm belief that all animals taken into public places, including airplane cabins, must be well behaved and under the control of their owners/partners. When ill-behaved or uncontrolled animals are allowed to be present in public places, their presence can make it difficult for our service animals who also have a right to be with us inside airplane cabins, to do their jobs — of guiding those of us who are blind and visually impaired — safely and independently. Any animal, whether a legitimate service animal which is trained to perform a service for a person with a disability which allows that person to function, despite disability, or an emotional support animal which eases anxiety and assists a person with a mental or emotional disability to cope, must be expected to be well behaved and under the control of his or her owner/partner. Thank you, Penny Reeder, President, Guide Dog Users, Inc.

    • Hi Penny, John Walton here (I think you might have mistaken the author of the piece).

      I firmly agree that all service and support animals should be well behaved and under the control of their owner/partner, both for the reasons you state and for the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.

      I do, however, have concerns about separating physical disability from mental disability. It’s clear that our understanding of mental health and mental disabilities has progressed significantly in the decade since the FAA’s guidelines were established, as has the caselaw about accommodations, and I think that a reframing of the various roles that a service/support animal can play, as well as considering whether the current MD-signed form is the most appropriate gatekeeper for the system, would be useful.

  3. Kelly

    I agree with the principle of the article, but another example should be used rather than the recent incident with the emotional support pig. That pig was uncontrolled, to the point of urinating and defecating as it ran up and down the aisles. If you want people to take an issue seriously, please don’t use the worst possible example to back yourself up; it just doesn’t work.

    • Kelly, the recent pig issue was simply what spurred me to write objecting to the disdain with which mental health problems are held. I agree with you that this particular pig was uncontrolled and thus, at the time, unsuitable to be a support animal.

      The FAA’s rule on pigs states “E. Other unusual animals such as miniature horses, pigs and monkeys should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Factors to consider are the animals size, weight, state and foreign country restrictions, and whether or not the animal would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or cause a fundamental alteration (significant disruption) in the cabin service. If none of these factors apply, the animal may accompany the passenger in the cabin. In most other situations, the animal should be carried in the cargo hold in accordance with company policy.”

      From the images I’ve seen, it seems that perhaps an animal this large shouldn’t have been boarded in the first place — apart from its behaviour it seems to have been too large to realistically fit into this passenger’s feet area.

  4. Harold A. Maio

    People with mental health problems are stigmatized

    We are?

    We earn to the millions, hold every university degree, and every professional, white, and blue collar job. People with mental health problems are a broad and diverse demographic. Some experience prejudice, none “stigma,” though they well have been taught to call prejudice that.

  5. Pingback: AirplaneGeeks 327 Dogs and Drones | Airplane Geeks Podcast

  6. Lucifer's Left-Hand Man

    I find masturbation a therapeutic coping mechanism. I guess I just need a note from a quack and I can do it on the plane.

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