Flying with your emotional support animal

If you have an emotional support animal (ESA), the prospect of flying may seem daunting if you are thinking about the legal rules and airline policies that apply to traveling by air with your ESA. However, air travel with your ESA can go smoothly as long as you meet certain requirements. The Air Carrier Access Act is a federal law that provides that a commercial airline must permit emotional support animals to accompany qualified passengers on a flight. This law also allows the airlines to establish certain requirements for traveling with an ESA. This overview discusses the requirements and restrictions for air travel with an emotional support animal, considering the Air Carrier Access Act, federal regulations, and the policies of USA-based airline companies.

Documentation from a licensed mental health professional

Air travel with emotional support animals requires current documentation on letterhead from a licensed mental health professional or physician that states the following:

• The traveler has a mental health-related disability. Airlines are not permitted to require the documentation to specify the type of mental health disability or the specific diagnosis. However, airlines can and in some cases do require the document to state that the passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth or Fifth Edition (DSM IV or V).

• The animal accompanying the traveler is necessary to his or her mental health or treatment during the flight and/or at the destination.

• The person providing the evaluation of the traveler is a licensed medical professional and the traveler is under his or her professional care.

• The practitioner writing the letter should indicate clearly what type of  health care professional they are. An appropriate medical professional for this documentation purpose can include a psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, or a medical doctor who is specifically treating the traveler’s mental or emotional disability. Many airlines also require the medical professional’s license number or the type of license, the issue date and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.

• Some airlines may additionally require the document to specify the number and type of animal(s) needed.

The documentation must be current, which means no more than one year old. If you plan to travel with an ESA, please note that this emotional support animal letter is very important, as most airlines require it in order to grant a passenger’s request to travel with an ESA. This requirement is consistent with federal guidelines.

Advance notice to the airline

Federal regulations also allow airlines to require at least 48 hours notice of a passenger’s wish to travel with an ESA. This allows the carrier time to assess the traveler’s documentation. This means that to ensure your ability to travel with your ESA, you must contact the airline with your request at least 48 hours prior to the scheduled departure time and be prepared to provide the letter from your mental health professional upon request. In some cases you may have to fax it to the airline. If you do not contact the airline in advance or do not give the airline officials the letter in advance so that they have the opportunity to call your mental health professional’s office to verify it, then they can decline to allow you to travel with your ESA.

Training requirements

While an emotional support animal can only be used by people with a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder, an ESA is not required to have to specific training for that function. However, airlines can require that the animal must be trained to behave appropriately in public. As provided in the Department of Transportation’s “Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation,” if an animal engages in disruptive behavior, such as running around an aircraft or an airport gate area, growling or barking at other people on an airplane, biting or jumping on people, or urinating in the cabin or gate area, an airline does not have to allow that animal to travel as an ESA, even if the animal is necessary for a passenger’s emotional well-being.

Species, breed and size restrictions

Restrictions on the size, species and breed of emotional support animals are left to the airlines’ discretion. We have found that most airlines will let on any size or breed of dog or cat, since many ESA breeds are prescribed specifically to the patient for therapeutic purposes. ESAs are not allowed to sit in the exit rows of an aircraft. If no other accommodation can be made and the animal is too large to fit in the cabin, airlines will require that the ESA be checked as baggage. Airlines are not required to allow exotic or dangerous species or breeds to travel on their flights. Generally, any domesticated species or breed of animal may qualify as an ESA, provided that it is accompanied by the appropriate documentation. Many airlines do not categorically exclude specific species or breeds from ESA access to their flights in their written policies. Carriers determine whether or not they’ll give an ESA travel privileges by evaluating each individual request. Some airlines have exercised their discretion to grant ESA access to various species. Major carriers such as American Airlines and Delta have said that they’ve allowed a miniature horse, pot-bellied pig, goat and duck to fly as ESAs on their aircrafts. However, an airline may exclude an ESA of any species or breed from its flights if the animal displays disruptive behavior.


Emotional support animals with the appropriate documentation that are assisting passengers generally travel free of charge, whether they are transported with checked baggage or in the aircraft cabin.

Vaccination and health documentation requirements for domestic travel

There are currently no vaccination or health certification requirements for support animals on domestic flights within the United States, except for travel to Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Hawaii has health documentation and quarantine requirements for inbound animals to maintain its status as a rabies-free state. If you are traveling to Hawaii with an emotional support animal, you must have a health certificate issued within 14 days of travel. A Neighborhood Island Permit is also required for travel between certain islands within Hawaii. For information on permits and the requirements for allowing ESAs to enter the state of Hawaii without quarantine, contact the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

ESAs traveling between the Continental United States and Puerto Rico are required to have the following:

• A veterinary health certificate stating that the animals do not originate in an area quarantined for rabies.

• A certificate of vaccination against rabies within six months prior to travel for pets that are over four months old.

• Two identification tags and a collar. The tags should include your permanent address and telephone number, along with an address and telephone number where you can be reached while traveling.

For travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands, animal import regulations there require a rabies vaccination within six months of travel and a health certificate for dogs and cats coming from the U.S. Mainland and Puerto Rico.

Vaccination and health documentation requirements for international travel

For international travel with an emotional support animal, there are other vaccination and health documentation requirements that vary depending on your destination country. If you are planning to travel internationally with an ESA, contact your airline well in advance to inquire about the applicable requirements and authorities to consult for your destination.

Airlines permitting an emotional support animal to travel with a passenger expect that the passenger assume full responsibility for the safety, well-being and conduct of the animal, and for compliance with all legal requirements. If you plan to travel with an emotional support animal, keep in mind that while this overview can assist you in being prepared, you will need to make your own inquiries concerning the requirements for your specific situation. It is prudent to contact your airline well in advance of your travel dates to ask about their ESA requirements and restrictions that apply to your animal. For travel outside of the continental United States, it is wise to also contact in advance the appropriate authorities in the country or jurisdiction to which you are traveling to inquire about additional documentation or vaccination requirements that may apply at your destination. With preparation, notice and attention to requirements, you can enjoy safe and smooth traveling with your emotional support animal.