photo by Kinjeng

With an increase in the number of “service dogs” traveling with their human companion on airplanes, sufficient measures should be in place to insure that these dogs are protected from the inadvertent spread of infectious, contagious diseases and parasites from other subclincally infected canine passengers.  Also, sufficient training and restraint of animals traveling in cabins with their owners should be required to prevent injuries to human and non-human passengers.

To prevent the spread of disease or parasites, it is not enough to require a health certificate, with a signature from a licensed veterinarian.  A veterinarian can only determine whether there are any clinical signs (symptoms) of infection or infestation apparant upon routine examination.  Except for rabies vaccinations, there appear to no requirements for vaccination of common diseases, or preventive treatment for internal or external parasites.  If more and more animals will be traveling with their owners, then these measures should be considered for the benefit of all co-traveling animals.  Veterinarians issuing health certificates must attest to the health of the animal they are examining at the time of the exam.

As far as training requirements, some airlines require “service animals” (animals accompanying individuals with physical disabilities) to be properly trained, but there do not appear to be similar requirements for “emotional support” animals.  Without the rigorous training received by service dogs who assist people with physical disabilities, animals and humans, alike, may be at risk of injury inflicted by an un-trained passenger.  Recently, on a flight to Florida, I observed a family traveling with a standard poodle who was wearing a service dog vest, but who would not “sit” even after repeated commands to do so.  While this lack of training may not have posed a risk to others, insufficient training may be problematic if owners are unable to control their dogs, particularly when other dogs are on the same flight.

Additionally, some airlines do not require service or emotional support dogs, to be harnassed and secured during takeoff, landing, and periods of in-flight turbulence.  United Airlines requires service animals to be properly harnessed for the duration of the flight, but small animals are allowed to remain in the passengers lap during the flight.  (See http://www.united.com/web/format/pdf/travel/specialneeds/disabilities/Support_Animal_Form_6-11-13S_updated.pdf. )  It is surprising that specific restraints have not been developed, tested and required, to protect these animals (and human passengers onboard) when literally everything else must be properly stowed or tied down during the flight.  It is unclear who would be liable if an unrestrained dog, tossed about the cabin, were to injure people during flights.

Finally, there are concerns about co-travelers who may be allergic to the animals accompanying their owners on flights.  This is particularly a concern because the filtration aboard airplanes is not necessarily designed to eliminate allergens, and those who are particularly sensitive to animal dander and fur may be medically compromised aboard a flight with non-human passengers.

Clearly, if the trend in which more companion animals are traveling aboard airlines with their owners continues, greater attention to the needs of all travelers will have to be addressed, to keep human and non-human passengers safe and healthy, while attending to the specific needs of individuals with disabilities.