If you have a mental or emotional health condition that severely limits your life activities, there are federal laws that can protect your right to be accompanied by an assistance animal. For owners of emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric service dogs (PSDs), their animal companions are key to their ability to lead happy, healthy lives.
Most people are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which gives broad public access rights for individuals that require a service animal. When flying on a plane, however, a different federal law applies. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits discrimination based on a disability in air travel and gives special privileges to owners of psychiatric service dogs.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is the federal agency that oversees air travel, and they issue rules and guidance regarding how airlines should accommodate service dog owners on flights. These rules apply to all flights of U.S. airlines and also to flights to/from the U.S. by international airlines. If you have a mental health disability, the ACAA and the DOT’s rules allow you to fly with your psychiatric service dog in the cabin of the airplane, free of charge.
Let’s take a closer look at the ACAA and how it affects owners of emotional support animals and psychiatric service dogs.
If you feel that you could benefit from living and traveling with a psychiatric service dog, complete the questionnaire in the link below to get started.
The Air Carrier Access Act and Emotional Support Animals
In 1986 Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits commercial airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities (including mental health disabilities). The ACAA and the DOT’s rules help ensure that passengers that require a psychiatric service animal during a flight are accommodated by airlines.
The ACAA opened the way for disabled passengers to fly with their assistance animals without having to pay pet fees. Airlines were also required to allow emotional support animals to fly in the cabin of the airplane with their owners. This allowed disabled travelers to bypass transporting their animals in the sometimes dangerous cargo hold of planes. Sadly, the cargo area of an airplane is sometimes even a fatal place for animals (dozens of animals were either lost, injured, or found dead in 2017), and most assistance animal owners try to avoid leaving their prized companions there.
For many years these air travel rules protected emotional support animals alongside psychiatric service dogs. Unfortunately, the Department of Transportation implemented new rules in 2021 that allowed U.S. airlines to stop recognizing emotional support animals. In practical terms, that means virtually every U.S. airline has ended its ESA program. That was disappointing news for all ESA owners. But if there was one silver lining, it was for owners of psychiatric service dogs.
Under the latest DOT rules, psychiatric service dogs can continue to board flights free of charge. The DOT affirmed that airlines must respect the rights of psychiatric service dog owners and provide them with accommodation in the cabin when possible. However, if you are an ESA owner, your animal companion will be treated as a normal pet. That means your ESA will be subject to the airline’s fees for pets and restrictions based on size and breed. Sadly, many ESA owners will no longer be able to fly with the ESA in the cabin, even if they are willing to pay a pet fee.
In the next section, we’ll explore the rights that psychiatric service dogs have and how PSD owners can continue to fly with their animals by their side.
ACAA Rules & Regulations for Psychiatric Service Dogs
The ACAA and DOT regulations set out certain legal criteria for the qualification of a psychiatric service dog. As a starting point, the ACAA is intended to help people with “disabilities.” A disability for the ACAA has a specific meaning. It can be physical in nature (for example, visually impaired people with guide dogs) or a psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
A person is considered to have a psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability if their condition “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” For example, if the individual’s mental health condition affects their ability to work, attend school, or sleep. A disability can be a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or phobia. It can also be a learning disability such as ADHD. Many people with autism also utilize psychiatric service dogs.
If a person has a disability that requires a trained dog, that dog may be considered a psychiatric service dog if certain conditions are met. These are some of the important criteria for having a legitimate psychiatric service dog under the ACAA:
- The psychiatric service animal must be a dog—no other animals are allowed under the DOT’s rules.
- A PSD must be individually trained to perform tasks relating to a disability (a PSD in training is not considered a service dog—it must be fully trained).
- Psychiatric service dogs must be well-behaved and able to perform their tasks in various public settings.
The primary distinction between a PSD and an ESA is that a PSD must be fully trained to perform one or more tasks that directly assist with the handler’s condition. A psychiatric service dog can be trained by the owner or by a professional trainer. There is no requirement to use a third-party trainer, although it is recommended if the owner has minimal experience with training dogs.
There are countless tasks that psychiatric service dogs are called on to perform for their owners. They do amazing tasks such as reminding their handlers to take medication at certain times, providing deep pressure to calm during periods of stress, licking to interrupt self-destructive behaviors, “breaking the spell” during psychotic episodes, and buffering the handler from crowds. This is just a small sampling of the important jobs that PSDs are trained to do. The variety of tasks that PSDs have been called on to perform is truly impressive.
Documentation Required for Psychiatric Service Dogs
If you fly with a psychiatric service animal, you will be required to submit the DOT’s Service Animal Air Transportation Form prior to boarding the flight. On the form, you will self-certify that your dog is a fully trained psychiatric service dog. The form requires the name of the dog’s trainer (which can be you) and veterinarian but only needs to be signed by the PSD’s owner.
If you’re starting to become a PSD owner, a good place to start is by getting a psychiatric service dog letter. A PSD letter is a signed document from a licensed healthcare professional that contains an opinion on whether you have a qualifying disability for purposes of owning a psychiatric service dog. Remember, the basis for owning a psychiatric service dog must be that you have a qualifying disability under the ADA and ACAA.
ESA Doctors can pair you with a licensed healthcare professional that is knowledgeable about psychiatric service dogs. The professional will assess your mental health and, if you qualify, issue an authentic signed PSD letter that contains their contact and license information. The letter will be yours as backup documentation regarding your mental health condition. To get started today, complete the questionnaire at the link below.
If you have a disability that requires the help of a psychiatric service dog, the Air Carrier Access Act and DOT regulations ensure you are treated with respect when traveling with your canine companion. Potential PSD owners should recognize that there are specific requirements for qualifying for a psychiatric service dog. It is important to be evaluated by a licensed professional who can help determine whether you have a qualifying disability and fully undertake the necessary training of your animal before taking it into any public area or on a flight.
If you’re starting on your journey towards owning a psychiatric service dog, the compassionate healthcare professionals that work with ESA Doctors can help. Just click on the link below to get started.