If you’ve been flying lately, you’ve probably seen at least one dog on your plane. They’re usually in a carrier and under the seat. Often times, you may not even know there is a dog there until the plane lands!

I have also seen large, 50 pound dogs laying on the floor!

You’re probably wondering…”Why are they flying without a carrier?” or “That dog weighs 80 pounds?! How are they allowed on the plane?”

Usually, these are service dogs. They are allowed to go anywhere with their owner, as they provide life-saving services.

There’s also another other kind of dog – the Emotional Support Animal (ESA), that is allowed on planes and typically aren’t in a carrier.

Our family travels a lot over the summer, and we wouldn’t be able to go to as many places as we do without our dog, Gant. He has become a seasoned traveller, and a certified ESA. Today, I’ll be giving a comprehensive guide on traveling with an ESA on a plane, what an ESA is, and tips and tricks for having a smooth flight. I also had the pleasure of interviewing Licensed Therapist John Stiteler of Total Health Guidance, where they provide counseling services, as well as ESA certification.

What’s an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal is an animal that helps affect someone’s emotional state, by offering physical and relational support”, says Stiteler. “An ESA is beneficial in that it helps those struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Having a reliable unbiased companion help manage many of the symptoms associated with these issues. “

Gant provides stress and anxiety relief when I fly, by remaining calm, sitting on my lap, and letting me focus on petting his ears.

How is it different than a Service Animal?

Service animals go through extensive training to become a certified service pet. “A service animal is trained to support with specific tasks like mobility, moving and collecting items,” Stiteler explains.

Does your dog qualify to be an ESA?

Is your dog even-tempered? Calm? Does he detect when you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed? Stiteler says, “In order to qualify, the pet owner must meet some diagnostic criteria for a mental illness as defined by the DSM5.  It could be depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, or any other mental illness. That illness must impact some area of their life and the animal must provide some level of relief of symptoms.”

Typically, you must have a medical professional evaluate and be able to confidentially say your mental health needs require a support animal. This is usually done through a psychological evaluation. Total Health Guidance evaluates the person during a 1-hour session, to confirm and establish the need for an ESA.

Ok, so my dog is approved to be an ESA Animal. How do I start the flying process?

First, book your flight. I recommend doing a non-stop flight (if your dog can hold it) if the duration of the ride is 5 hours or more. The maximum number of hours your dog can fly is 8. Any overseas or flights longer than that are typically denied. Check with your airline in advance.

Typically, after you book your flight, you need to indicate you are bringing a service animal. Either you go into your reservation “under Manage Reservations” on the site and check “Special Assistance Animals”, or you submit the forms needed to be approved (more on that below). For Alaska Airlines, as an example, you need to check “Special Assistance Animals”, when making your reservation, and then you need to submit forms within 48 hours of your flight for approval. Once approved, you are ready to go. I also recommend bringing a health certificate from your veterinarian.

With Southwest, you book your flight, and then bring a letter from a licensed professional proving your are under their care, the animal is well behaved, and their license information.

What are these “Special Assistance Forms” I need to submit?

These forms prove you are allowed to fly with an ESA animal on their flight. Forms typically include one that you have to sign, stating you are responsible for your pet, that they are well behaved, and they are healthy enough to travel. Another form will be one your therapist or a licensed professional has to sign, providing information on their license(s), how long they’ve been under your care, etc. Some flights also require your veterinarian to fill out a form stating your pet is healthy enough for travel. Delta Airlines seems to have all three of those forms, while Southwest, as mentioned above, just need one letter. It really depends on where you’re going. I have included forms from Southwest and Alaska as examples:

Southwest’s ESA Requirements
This is one of three forms Alaska Airlines requires, including information of your therapist or licensed professional.

IMPORTANT: You do NOT have to resubmit again for your return flight, if you bought a roundtrip ticket. If you do separate tickets, then you have to do the process each time.

Ok, my flight is booked, my ESA animal is approved. What’s next?

Good job! You and your adorable ESA animal are ready for travel! Here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Treats to keep them happy. Sometimes they won’t want to eat regular food, and it’s better to keep them hungry to prevent accidents, so treats throughout the day are a good option to keeping them sustained throughout the flight.
  • Poop bags. After a long flight, my dog has on occasion just pooped in the middle of the terminal. Make sure you have your bags handy! While there are some relief areas inside the terminal, your dog may not go because he is trained to go outside. When I do a connecting flight, I do take him outside if there’s enough time in between. But you do have to go through security again.
  • Blanket. My dog sits on my lap the whole time, and afterwards I’m covered in dog hair! Bring a thin blanket or towel to keep you both comfortable.
  • This is optional, but I did buy a little ESA Animal Vest, just to show the airlines he’s “official”. You can get them here.

The Day Of Travel

Ok, you did all the hard work – you got your tickets, submitted your forms and got approval, and all the supplies needed for your a safe and healthy travel with your dog.

If your flight is early in the morning (before noon), I recommend not feeding your dog. This will decrease accidents during the flight. I do give treats throughout the day to keep him sustained and happy. If your flight is in the early afternoon or evening, feed them once, and make sure they go RIGHT before you head to the airport. Try not to give them too much water as well.

I recommend arriving at least 2 hours before your flight, just in case. You are usually not able to check in online prior, so you give yourself ample time to wait in line. You go up to the counter, give your forms (if not submitted already online), tickets, and then head to security.

My dog is on leash the whole time. If your dog is not comfortable, you can leave them in their carrier. TSA asks me to put my baggage through the conveyor belt, and then hold my dog while walking through security checkpoint.

TSA is usually very friendly when you have a dog. On more than one occasion, they pull out their phone, show me their dogs, or ask to pet him. It does make the security process much more pleasant.

Hanging out in the Terminal. Excuse the blurry photo!

I basically walk him all around the terminal, and right onto the plane. Sometimes I pick him up because he gets nervous actually boarding the plane. Then he is on my lap the whole time. Most passengers love being around dogs, but I always like to ask. If I am alone, I have asked my fellow passenger to hold him or at least make sure he doesn’t get off the seat when I have to go to the bathroom.

Hanging out on my lap. Again sorry for the poor lighting. He just sits there the whole time.

Afterwards, I tend to immediately head outside, even if I have bags checked, as he cannot hold it any longer. There tends to be relief areas right outside airports.

I hope this information was helpful! Please let me know if you have any other tips and tricks for ESA animals, and if I left anything out. And thanks to Therapist John Stiteler of Total Health Guidance, who provided more info on getting a ESA animal certified.

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