What the new emotional support animal rules mean for pet travel

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Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new rules for air travelers with emotional support animals. They don’t yet have a firm enforcement date — but depending on what kind of pet owner you are, the news could be good or bad. You may find your upcoming flights to be significantly more pricey than you had presupposed.

A few of the best travel credit cards, like The Platinum Card® from American Express, come with airline credits that allow you to get hundreds of dollars in pet fees waived each year. That’s super handy, but all the better if you can avoid the charge in the first place. We’ll outline these new rules, how to mitigate them and help you to understand what it means when flying with your pet.

Certified service dogs are largely unaffected by this rule. (Photo by cunaplus/Shutterstock)

Airlines no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals

On Dec. 2, 2020, the U.S. DOT ruled the following regarding airlines and service animals:

  • Carriers are not required to recognize emotional support animals as service animals and may treat them as pets
  • Carriers can limit service animals to dogs
  • The definition of a service animal is “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

This new edict was instigated in part by the airlines themselves. The simple truth is that a lot of travelers were suspected of traveling with their pets under the guise of them being an “emotional support animal.” See, bringing a service animal (which included emotional support animals until now) aboard a plane doesn’t incur a fee — but bringing your pet with you can cost ~$125 each way. That’s a loophole so wide that it’s hard to blame someone for strutting through it.

Once this rule is published in the Federal Register, it will be enforced 30 days later. We aren’t yet sure when that will be, but we’ll let you know when we hear.

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What the new rules mean for your pet

Per the new rule, emotional support animals are no longer categorized as service animals. Furthermore, if you don’t have a certified service dog, your pet may have to ride with the cargo, according to the Associated Press. If you want your pet with you in the cabin, it may have to be on a leash, fit on your lap or in a carrier underneath the seat in front of you.

Airlines can also require service animal owners to submit paperwork before a flight vouching for a dog’s health, behavior and training. They can also turn away a service dog if it exhibits aggressive behavior.

These changes are no doubt a blow to many owners of genuine emotional support animals.

For others, including those in the airline industry, this is seen as welcome news. Travelers will hopefully get more space, fewer onboard allergens and less danger during their travels. Slapping the title “emotional support” on a pet that may react badly to the intricacies of air travel is a gamble. People have claimed a wide variety of animals with this broad title, including mini-horses, pigs, turtles and even peacocks.

There have never been any real guidelines for what does and does not qualify as a service animal, so as this new rule is implemented, it will protect passengers from animals who are not in fact properly trained for the journey. There have been multiple incidents of alleged emotional support animals attacking passengers and crew during flight.

Airlines also stand to make money from this policy change, the DOT estimates that airlines will take in $59.6 million in pet fees next year.

How to offset airline pet fees

To combat the pet fees you’ll find yourself now paying to bring along an emotional support animal, you can use the perks of any of the following cards:

  • The Platinum Card® from American Express – Up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for airline incidentals with your selected airline (such as pet fees, luggage fees, etc.)
  • Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card – Up to $250 in annual statement credits with your selected airline (such as luggage fees, in-flight food and drink, etc.)
  • The Business Platinum Card® from American Express – Up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for airline incidentals with your selected airline (such as luggage fees, in-flight food and drink, etc.)
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve® – Up to $300 travel credit annually towards travel
  • Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card – Use Capital One miles to reimburse travel (should work on pet fees)

Additionally, using credit card points and airline miles to pay for your own ticket will make the total cost of travel cheaper, even if you do have to shell out cash for a pet fee.

The information for the Hilton Aspire card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Bottom line

Emotional support animals will soon be banned from riding in the airplane’s cabin. The years of travelers passing-off regular pets as service animals has led to this new decree from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and is devastating to those with legitimate emotional support animals.

Gone are the days of seeing emotional support pigs, lobsters, peacocks, and other assorted exotic pets. Only dogs that have been trained to perform tasks for someone with a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disability have the privilege of riding in the fuselage.

Let us know what you think about this news! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for more travel news and tricks delivered to your inbox once per day!

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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