Eva Grey: As our understanding of mental health expands and becomes more inclusive, so must our regulatory frameworks

Accepting, accommodating and respecting the mental health needs of everyone is one of the stepping stones of building a progressive society. As our understanding of mental health expands and becomes more inclusive, so must our regulatory frameworks. Just as service dogs are rightly welcomed and accommodated in a wide variety of public and private spaces on the grounds that they enable their keepers to live an independent, dignified, more comfortable life, there is no reason to believe that emotional support animals (ESAs) – and the regulation surrounding them – will not follow a similar path.

Clinically defined as “an animal that helps alleviate symptoms of an emotional or mental disability through companionship and affection”, a person is legally entitled to carry an ESA only when they have a disability recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, certified by a licensed medical professional. The World Health Organisation estimates that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, and today, around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions.

“Clearer regulation –as opposed to misinformation, prejudice and an outright ban on ESAs – is urgently needed.”

The scientific backing of how helpful ESAs actually are in relieving symptoms associated with mental health disorders is shaky to date. Some studies have found positive impacts, such as relieving problem behaviours, severity and stress for autism spectrum disorder, or helping PTSD sufferers to feel calmer, less lonely, less depressed and less worried. However, various methodological weaknesses and limited data have rendered the studies mostly inconclusive, and many agree that further research is needed.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act only covers psychiatric service animals, which are prescribed to individuals whose disorder is severe enough to impair their daily functioning, the Air Carrier Access Act (the Federal law that protects the rights of people with disabilities in air travel) explicitly covers “any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” But ESA owners can still land in trouble, depending on which airline they choose to fly with, as well as their destination.

In general, most airlines who do accept ESAs ask for appropriate documentation to be submitted 48 hours prior to travel, and for the person to be travelling with a trained animal which is not overly large. These stipulations are important, as they bring some definition to what is currently a very grey area. Ensuring that an ESA is vaccinated, hygienic, well-behaved and of a manageable size is of utmost importance, since this is the only way their presence can be ensured. Clearer regulation –as opposed to misinformation, prejudice and an outright ban on ESAs – is therefore urgently needed.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a level playing field, individual airlines often enforce their own rules, which might seem arbitrary. For example, Delta is no longer accepting pit bulls as either service or support animals, while ESAs are not accepted on flights longer than eight hours. American Airlines has an extensive list of banned critters, which includes amphibians, goats, ferrets, hedgehogs, spiders and reptiles. Furthermore, a handful of destinations, such as New Zealand, Hong Kong and St Vincent and the Grenadines, are among those who outright ban ESAs from incoming flights.

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Adele Berti: What for some is a stress reliever could end up being the very cause of it for the rest of the cabin

While there’s no doubt that pets can be of great comfort to their owners – especially those struggling with mental health issues – boarding them on an airplane for emotional support poses more drawbacks than benefits.

Specifically, what is unclear – pending definitive official certification – is the extent to which being accompanied by an ESA can help ease a passenger’s experience, and whether it is fair to prioritise a single person’s needs at the expense of other passengers.

So far, no correlation has been scientifically established between owning a pet and a person’s mental wellbeing. A number of studies on the matter have been carried out in recent years, and, whether for or against, all of them conclude that there is no hard evidence to support either argument.

As such, hoping to address this issue, many airlines now require those needing ESA assistance to provide certification to justify their needs, as well as prove that the animals can fly for eight or more hours without needing to relieve themselves.

However, ABC recently reported that obtaining these certificates online is becoming increasingly easy – meaning anyone can potentially get one – and the fact that the number of ESA-accompanied passengers for United Airlines has grown by 77% in one year seems to point in this direction.

“While their owner might be reassured by their presence, the animal itself might not feel the same way.”

Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association recently entered talks with the Department of Transportation to make sure they are not to be held accountable for verifying that an animal will behave on-board, due to their highly unpredictable temperament.

Nevertheless, even if there was to be stricter regulation to obtain these certificates, chances remain high that what for some is a stress reliever could end up being the very cause of it for the rest of the cabin.

Pets are already difficult to control, as well as unpredictable on a daily basis; imagine how some of them would feel at 3,500ft in the air, surrounded by strangers for two or more hours. Because they’re animals, they have physical urgencies that their owners can hardly contain or stop, especially during distressing situations such as a take-off or a landing.

They also have needs that might push them to search for food in the neighbouring seats. That is, of course, if their owners don’t expect airlines to provide food and water for them, which, considering that ESAs fly for free, would incur extra costs for the company.

This is without even considering the fact that while their owner might be reassured by their presence, the animal itself might not feel the same way, and could go as far as needing an ESA of their own. This was the case on-board a United Airlines flight, where according to CEO Oscar Munoz, a passenger attempted to board with both a dog and a monkey, claiming one needed to comfort the other.

Even if, against all odds, pets eventually behave at their best on-board, they could still be a problem for passengers who are allergic or afraid of them. As such, while it is clear that animals are of great support for many, too often travelling with an ESA threatens the wellbeing of the animal itself, other passengers and the airline staff, risking ruining everyone’s journey for the benefit of just one person.