How to travel with your ESA.
Traveling can be stressful at the best of times, but for people living with a mental illness or emotional disorder, it can be overwhelming at best, and nigh-on impossible at worst. Luckily, help is at hand in the form of emotional support animals, which offer a calm presence, love, and support to their owners, giving them the confidence and clarity of mind to be able to travel. Here, we’ll go into all the detail you need about traveling with an ESA, from the rules and regulations to booking your flights, preparing your animal to fly, and more.
1. Before You Book: Understanding the Rules About Traveling with an ESA
Before you book a flight for you and your emotional support animal, it’s important to know the rules. Flying with assistance animals (ESAs and service animals) is legislated on by the Air Carrier’s Access Act (ACAA). Under the ACAA, people with assistance animals can travel with them free of charge in the cabin of any commercial airline, and this includes emotional support animals.
However, there are certain exceptions to this rule, and you should always check with the airline you intend to fly with what their specific regulations are. Almost all airlines require passengers traveling with an emotional support animal to show an ESA letter, and some even require a copy to be submitted in advance of flying.
An ESA letter is the only legal “proof” of a person’s need for an emotional support animal. These letters must be issued by a licensed mental health professional, and state that the holder is receiving treatment for a diagnosed mental health condition and the animal in question is necessary for their ongoing treatment. Beware any websites or services that offer to “certify” or “register” your animal as an emotional support animal, as these are undoubtedly scams, and may result in you and your ESA being unable to travel.
A few further points to remember: some airlines restrict the definition of emotional support animal to dogs and cats only. What’s more, airlines have the right to refuse any animal that is behaving in an aggressive or unruly manner, or which is unclean or not house-broken. At the end of the day, it’s always down to the owner to control their animal when traveling, emotional support animal or not.
2. Preparing Your ESA to Fly: Training and Socializing
Once you’ve booked your flight, having checked that your ESA fits the airline’s specific regulations, you’ll need to get the animal ready to travel. As we mentioned above, when ESAs travel on planes, or any public transport for that matter, they must be able to behave properly. Even the calmest animal can become distressed when confronted with the crowds and unfamiliar smells, noises, and sensations of an airport.
The first step is to get your animal used to being in crowded places. Try taking your ESA to pet-friendly restaurants, or to large pet stores that permit animals. Little and often is key here, so be careful not to overwhelm the animal.
Next, practice taking your ESA on other forms of transport, such as trains and buses, and getting it to sit quietly under the seat, by your feet, or on your lap, depending on the rules of that form of transport. This will help it to get used to being in motion.
If your ESA is still struggling to stay calm in crowds, try investing in a few training and socializing classes before you travel. If the animal knows basic commands like “sit”, “lie down”, “stay” and “quiet”, this will make your journey much smoother!
3. Get the Necessary Documentation Together
As we mentioned above, you should always bring your ESA letter with you when flying. Even if you have to submit a copy in advance, it’s always worth bringing a hard copy too. ESA letters are valid for one year from when they’re issued, so make sure that you have enough time left on yours too before you leave.
Other useful documents to have with you when you fly are a veterinarian’s certificate and a copy of the animal’s vaccination record. While not all airlines require this information (for example here is the American Airlines pet policy), some destination airports do, so we say it’s better safe than sorry. Make sure you leave enough time to visit the veterinarian and get these documents—as well as a full bill of health for your ESA—before you travel. This is also a good time to stock up on any medications your ESA might need for the trip, and to ask about animal travel sickness pills, if necessary.
4. Immediately Before Flying…
On the day of traveling, the main thing is for you and your ESA to keep each other calm. The whole point of emotional support animals is that they have a strong emotional bond with their owners, but sometimes this can mean that they feed off your stress.
Try to get everything ready a few days in advance to avoid last-minute worries about lost passports or car keys. Keep all of your ESA’s documents together somewhere that’s easily accessible so that you can find them when needed. The calmer your ESA is, the calmer you will be!
Try to keep your ESA’s routine as close to normal as regular. Some people recommend not feeding your animal within 4 hours of flying to avoid accidents, but this depends on the length of your flight and how long your journey at the other end will be. Most airports have relief areas for assistance animals, so there should be another chance for a bathroom break once you get to the airport.
If you have a long flight, bring enough food for one meal for your ESA in your carry-on luggage. We would also recommend bringing plenty of treats (as long as the animal doesn’t have a sensitive stomach) to distract and reward the animal.
Finally, when flying with an ESA, make sure to leave extra time at the airport for additional questions, bathroom breaks, and so on. The less you have to rush, the less stressed you will be.
Traveling with an emotional support animal, like any kind of traveling, is all about the proper preparation. With careful planning and consideration, flying with an ESA should be a breeze.