U.S. transport regulators reject ’emotional support animal’ status

Service dog status still protected; 'support' goats, turkeys, others up to airlines

Washington | Reuters — Only trained dogs qualify as service animals on U.S. airlines, as regulators rejected requests to extend legal protections to miniature horses, pigs, turkeys and other species, under final U.S. Transportation Department rules issued Wednesday.

Airlines can still choose which other species to allow on board, but the rules issued on Wednesday largely resolve years of disputes with passengers who falsely claim pets as “emotional support animals,” which may travel in the cabin with little oversight.

Under existing rules, airlines were required to recognize with limited exceptions emotional support animals as service animals. Now they can classify them as pets.

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Legally protected service animals are now limited to dogs trained to perform tasks for a person who may be visually impaired or have psychiatric or other disabilities, and airlines do not have to allow “emotional support animals.”

Airlines charge as much as US$175 to transport pets, a good reason to claim pets as emotional support animals. As recently as 2017, U.S. carriers transported 751,000 of them.

Species such as horses, cats and capuchin monkeys will not get service animal status from U.S. regulators, but airlines may recognize them as service animals if they choose. Airlines may still not refuse a service animal based solely on breed or generalized physical type.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said the rule “will protect the traveling public and airline crew members from untrained animals in the cabin.”

U.S. carriers including Southwest, Delta, United and American Airlines in recent years have limited emotional support animals in cabins to largely dogs and cats after passengers boarded with exotic pets such as monkeys, pigs and birds that could pose a safety risk.

Spirit Airlines told regulators it had lost “millions of dollars in pet carriage fees from passengers fraudulently claiming their ‘house pets are service or support animals.'”

In 2018, Delta noted some passengers “attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes” and spiders. That year, American Airlines said it would not allow a wide variety of creatures on flights as support animals including goats, ferrets, hedgehogs, amphibians and reptiles.

The new rules will take effect 30 days after publication in the federal register.

— David Shepardson reports on the U.S. transportation sector for Reuters from Washington, D.C.

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