Flying With My Emotional Support Animal Brings Loud Whispers From Flight Attendants
On 12/23/2019 I flew from Burbank via Southwest with my adorable, 12 pound mini-labradoodle Butters. While I have flown with him several times, this was the first time that I experienced blatant conversation of Southwest staff members discussing the lack of validity in emotional support animals.
I have been flying with emotional support animals since 2017. When I was diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders in 2017, I adopted a cat and I brought him with me frequently when I flew home. I felt nervous flying, so I pre-boarded with him. In June, I adopted a puppy who I now fly with. He is hypo-allergenic and small at 12 pounds. I bring my dog with me pretty much everywhere: to work, restaurants, school, and in public (when dogs are allowed in these places).
I keep him calm at the airport, giving him Benadryl and making sure that he goes to the bathroom at the designated Pet Relief Areas. I make sure that I stay out of others’ ways and to not impact others’ travel plans.
I have a prescription from my psychiatrist, prescribing me with an emotional support animal to work with my mental health disorders and treatment. With this letter being along the guidelines of what Southwest requires, I am able to fly with my puppy as an emotional support animal. I pre-board, meaning I fly before main cabin boarding with those that are disabled or need extra time boarding. According to Southwest, “An emotional support animal, typically a dog or cat, provides support for an individual with a mental health-related disability and is not trained to perform a specific task(s) or work” (Southwest).
When I travel, the biggest mental health issue that comes up is my anxiety. With or without my puppy, I become anxious traveling— choosing a seat, thinking about the safety of the aircraft itself, and reminding myself that being in an enclosed space for a period of time isn’t the end of the world. This is an extremely simplified explanation of what traveling feels like, but hopefully it provides a decent understanding of why boarding early helps.
I pre-board because I need a window seat or an aisle. I get anxious in the middle seat. I wish I had a reason. I know most people don’t like the middle seat. It isn’t great to have to sit next to people on both sides, but with anxiety I feel like the world is colliding in. Again, the anxiety cannot be described but I hope you can factually understand that I feel mentally and physically distraught from doing so.
Flying with my puppy allows for me to feel calm and at ease more-so than without him. Of course, traveling with my dog requires that I have extra obligations. I have to carry his toys, make sure he goes to the bathroom at appropriate times, and keep track of him and his behavior. I also fly with him because this is how I am able to keep my puppy with me throughout my entire trip. Meaning, without flying with my dog, I would not have my dog. And, for a five day trip, I very much want my dog for my own sanity.
As I was waiting to pre-board for the flight, I stood in line behind two other young women with their emotional support animals: dogs. The dogs and the women were all friendly, and we exchanged hellos (as did the dogs). We let the wheel-chaired individuals board first. Because my mental illness isn’t visible or physical, I want to make sure that those that need to board before others because of their physical limitations board before me. My limitations are the seat preference in order to calm myself and also for me to situate myself with my emotional support dog. Please note that the three of us with dogs on this flight did not have service animals, in this moment specifically trained (though my dog currently is in the process of becoming ADA compliant with his training for my medical purposes).
I witnessed an extremely disgusting chain of events though.
See, there are multiple types of classifications for animals by the government and airlines. We have pets, emotional support animals, service animals and more. For all information and definitions, see the links at the bottom of this article.
In short, if you fly with a pet, the animal has to be in a carrier and you have to pay an additional fee. With a doctor’s prescription, you do not need to put your animal in a carrier, as long as they are on a leash and well behaved, and the fee is waived. For Southwest, “Preboarding is available for Customers who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability and/or need assistance in boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device. If a Customer with a disability simply needs a little extra time to board, we will permit the Customer to board before Family Boarding, between the “A” and “B” groups. Those Customers who need extra time to board will receive a new boarding pass with an extra time designation” (Southwest).
So, I was to the side ready to board with the preboard group. Next to me were three Southwest flight attendants off duty, meaning that they were on the flight for transportation purposes but not working as flight attendants on this specific flight.
I tried not to listen to the whole conversation, but being in fairly small quarters and being able to hear what others were saying around me, I heard some of this: “There is no way that pets help with mental illnesses. Dogs are dogs. They are pets. There isn’t a reason that people need to board before other passengers. There are people with wheelchairs… Dogs do not help with mental illness. They are pets.” This was followed by about five minutes of glaring back and forth at dogs/the owners and the flight attendants’ colleagues. I do not know what the colleagues were thinking, as they were pretty silent. But, this man was vocal about it and did not seem to care that others heard. I made eye contact with him twice, and he looked at me then my dog then away. But, he did not discuss directly to me his own concern about the lack of medical help that he believed my dog had.
In the moment, I took a deep breath, pet my puppy, and began to board. Here’s my response- what I wanted to tell them:
Listen, there’s a reason why emotional support animals are government recognized. There’s a reason that so many of us here have animals. I understand that we do not look as though our illnesses hinder our abilities to travel in the way that being physically disabled does, but we have legitimate medical conditions. Beyond that, we have doctor’s letters that defend this.
I have a mental illness that can be debilitating, and this dog has saved my life. Not only that, he has improved my mental health. Before the puppy, I was on anti-depressants and a mood stabilizer in order to treat my symptoms. In the past four months, I have been able to ween off of my medication and cope on my own, with the help of skills learned and hugely from the support of my dog.
I understand that people have allergies, that dogs aren’t always clean. This is why there are rules in place to mitigate these problems and avoid them at all costs so that those of us can fly with our animals for medical purposes, as well as allow for those who do not want to be around animals to not be around them.
The reason I fly with him is because I have coped and learned to live with my illnesses alongside my dog. He gives me the support, and I believe in it. Not only that, I believe in my doctor’s support of this.
Perhaps, I should not fly. If I need a dog or a pill regimen to travel by plane, is traveling by plane something that I should be doing? I believe it is. Even though I have anxiety disorder, I believe that I have the right to fly and that I have developed a strong treatment plan to do so.
Perhaps, the rules around flying with pets and emotional support animals are relaxed. Maybe that is why you are scoffing at the concept of an emotional support animal over a pet? I am unsure if everyone flying with a letter from their doctor is actually in need of an emotional support animal.
At the end of the day, I can fly with my emotional support animal and I am given the ability to preboard. This helps me. This helps my process of flying and traveling overall. As a traveler, I follow the rules of the airline, and I find myself to be a very calm and easy traveller to have on the airline. These rules provide me with the ability to fly and minimize my anxiety, to bring my dog with me to travel and while away from home.
These comments that I heard feet away from me before boarding the flight on the 23rd made me feel like I was not valued as a traveler, like my illness was not “bad” enough to require help, and that I was abusing a system set in place to help those that need help. The comments were unprofessional, unwarranted, and frankly uninvited.
As of December 25, 2019- the ADAs up to date relations on Service Animals:
Southwest – animal policy:
Southwest – pet policy:
Southwest- emotional support animals:
Southwest- boarding the plane: