On Wednesday, August 21, 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation published a “Final statement of enforcement priorities regarding service animals.”  84 FR 43480-01, 2019 WL 3934886 (F.R.).  Unfortunately, as several associations commented, the language in this “guidance document” creates more not less confusion regarding what is legally identifiable a “service animal.”

This final statement followed an interim statement (published on May 23, 2018) and an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) seeking comment on amending the Department’s Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulation on the transportation of service animals (published on May 23, 2018).

As several commenters stated, these publications conflate the ADA service animal and emotion support animals as “service animals” instead of differentiating the use of these animals, as legally recognized, as (1) service animals permitted pursuant to the ADA (dogs and miniature horses, trained to address an individual’s disability); and (2) those used commonly as emotional support animals (no specific training is required).  The agency stated “the most commonly recognized service animals (i.e., dogs, cats, and miniature horses) are accepted for transport.”

The agency defines service animals to include emotional support animals: Service Animals (Including Emotional Support Animals)

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal is any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.

As the AVMA stated, emotional support animals, while beneficial to certain people, should not be categorized as service animals:

While the AVMA also recognizes the therapeutic benefits realized by those who legitimately utilize appropriately matched emotional support animals (ESAs), and has adopted policy accordingly (see https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Emotional-Support-Animals.aspx), we believe the ACAA’s implementing regulations should be amended to align with the ADA in that a service animal should be defined as an animal that is individually trained to assist a person with a disability. Emotional support animals provide therapeutic benefits that alleviate one or more identified symptoms or effects of an individual’s disability, or provide emotional support to a disabled individual who has a disability-related need for such support. An ESA may be a dog, a cat, or many other kinds of animal. The way in which support is provided by ESAs (via their presence) differs from that provided by service animals (via their actions), as does the training and acclimation these animals can be expected to receive. As such, ESAs should not be considered to be analogous to service animals.

Similarly, in combined comments from the Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association, the associations described increased concerns about the increasing identification of emotional support animals from their customers, noting:

In recent years, U.S. airlines have encountered a surge in the number of passengers seeking to travel with service animals. From 2016 to 2017, the number of service animals (excluding emotional support animals (“ESAs”)) that U.S. airlines accommodated in cabin increased by nearly 24%. The number of passengers seeking to travel with ESAs (and psychiatric service animals (“PSAs”)), however, increased at a far greater rate: by 56% in just one year (from 2016 to 2017). As DOT noted, one U.S. airline experienced a 75% increase from 2016 to 2017. One A4A member airline has experienced a more than eightfold increase in the number of ESAs since 2012. In 2017, U.S. airlines accommodated more than 750,000 ESAs in cabin, which constitutes 73% of all estimated service animals transported.

. . .

In a directly related development, our member airlines have experienced a disturbing growth in the number of passengers with questionable claims of disability seeking to travel with animals that they suggest are necessary to provide “emotional support,” but which are not trained as service animals (or even trained at all to behave in public settings like aircraft or airports). These animals, which may include wild and/or untrainable species, often are unable to behave appropriately in a public setting, including within the confines of an aircraft cabin. This growth in the number of ESAs carried has been accompanied by a surge in the number of incidents involving animals manifesting aggressive behavior (including barking, biting, nipping, growling, and fighting) and uncontrolled urinating and defecating in cabin and in the airport terminal at locations other than service animal relief areas.

As previously discussed, there are well known, widely accepted and scientifically based theories about the human health and behavioral benefits of companion animal ownership.  See, e.g., “The human-companion animal bond: how humans benefit,” Friedmann E1, Son H, PubMed.gov.


The human-animal bond is extremely important to most clients of small animal veterinary practices. Pet ownership, or just being in the presence of a companion animal, is associated with health benefits, including improvements in mental, social, and physiologic health status. This article provides the research data regarding the human health benefits of companion animals, animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted activities, and assistance animals; reviews measures that can be taken to enable safe pet ownership for the immunocompromised, and discusses the veterinarian’s role in supporting immune-compromised clients and clients who have assistance animals.

Continued differentiation of ADA-service animals from others that provide support to humans must be advanced to ensure that those who are in need of such assistance are able to continue to rely on the animals that provide them with such assistance.