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Traveling with Service & Emotional Support Animal

If you have an assistance animal, be it a service animal or emotional support animal (ESA,) you want to know that animal can travel with you when you fly. For many people, in fact, flying without their service animal or ESA is simply not possible, due to the health condition leading them to qualify for a service animal or ESA in the first place. The following article offers you a general overview of the rules and requirements for traveling domestically and internationally with an assistance animal.

According to the US Department of Transportation (DOT,) the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) recognizes service animals, including ESAs, as any animal either trained to provide help or capable of providing help to a person with a medical disorder or disability, or any animal that aids a person with a disability by giving emotional support. Rights and rules for traveling with an ESA or service animal are laid out by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA,) though they differ depending on the type of animal and the circumstances of travel. For example, some airlines or destination countries only allow service dogs but not other service animals. Moreover, requirements for traveling with a service animal may differ from those for traveling with an ESA, while requirements of different airlines and countries may differ as well, within the limits of the law.

Domestic Travel

All airlines flying domestically must allow service animals to fly with their owner or handler in cabin at no extra charge. What's more, they cannot require passengers with service animals to present any particular documentation proving their disability or authorization for a service animal. Rather, the airline can look for physical indications the animal is a service animal, such as a visibly obvious disability in the passenger or the presence of an identifying vest or tags, or observe the animal's behavior to see if it's obvious what tasks the animal performs for the passenger. Barring that, the airline must accept the passenger's credible verbal assurance that the disability and service animal are valid.

On the other hand, to bring your emotional support animal in cabin with you at no extra charge, you must present certain documentation verifying your qualifications for an ESA, including an ESA letter from your doctor verifying your need and authorization for an ESA. This applies as well if your animal is a psychiatric service animal.

International Travel

As a federal law, the ACAA applies to all US-based airlines. It also applies to any foreign airlines on routes with points of arrival or destination in the US. This law does not, however, apply to foreign airline routes that don't take off or land in America, nor does it apply to foreign airports or customs bureaus. This means, depending on the country you visit, you could conceivably fly there with your service animal or ESA riding in the cabin with you at no extra charge only to find that, when you land, your animal is either turned away at the airport or subjected to quarantine. Therefore, before you book any air travel tickets, particularly for foreign travel, make sure you're fully apprised of all the laws regarding coming into your destination countries with a service or emotional support animal.


Most service animals and ESAs are dogs, while the next most popular assistance animals are cats. Airlines are not required to allow certain animals on board a plane, even as service animals or ESA, including spiders, sugar gliders, rodents, ferrets, reptiles and snakes. Whether for domestic or international travel, airlines are also permitted to refuse animals that meet any of the following criteria:

  • They're too big or too heavy for the given airplane to accommodate them.
  • They present a direct threat to the safety or health of other passengers or crew.
  • They significantly disrupt cabin services.
  • They're forbidden from entering a destination country.

Register Your Assistance Animal

While you are not required by law to register your service animal or ESA, there are many reasons why it may be wise to do so. Both service animal and emotional support animal registration provide you certain items like ID tags, an identifying harness or vest, documentation and on-demand verification services to help validate your qualifications to those less familiar with the laws regarding travel with service animals. They provide you and your animal with greater authority and legitimacy, thereby helping to make your travel experience with your ESA or service animal much smoother, easier and more pleasant.

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