The airlines will still allow small pets to travel in a carrier in the cabin, but it’s a far cry from the lap seats these pets were used to.
Two of Canada’s biggest airlines are no longer allowing emotional support animals to travel in the cabin with their owners freely after rule changes by the US Department of Transport (DOT).
Air Canada and Westjet - two of the country’s largest aviation companies which dominate the air travel market north of the border - now refuse to allow emotional support animals in the cabin with their owners after changing their rules to comply with the US DOT’s policy changes in December 2020 - with Air Canada enacting the change in March 2021, and Westjet following suit at the beginning of August.
However, smaller dogs and cats that can fit in a specifically sized carrier can still join their owners in the cabin - but are not allowed out of their crates and have to remain under the seat in front of their owner for the duration of the flight.
But Canadian travellers with emotional support animals - also known as ESAs - say the new rules in Canada are “heartbreaking” for their pets.
How are new airline rules affecting owners of ESAs?
Cristina Wu owns Fella, a two-year-old Havanese, and brings him with her as an ESA for her anxiety when she flies for work multiple times a year from Vancouver to the US, with Fella having joined her on around 20 flights so far.
She said the rule change was “pretty heartbreaking” for Fella, who at 20lbs and about 18 to 20 inches in length is close to the maximum size for dogs in the cabin, and was previously used to sitting on her lap throughout flights.
Cristina said flying with Fella now is no longer relaxing for her, as she spends most of her time comforting him as he “whines and whimpers”.
She said: “He never left my side, we’ve been on 20 flights probably. He loves it. It was so free before, he could walk through the airport on his leash and not be in a carrier. All the pilots loved him, he was pretty sociable.
“I don’t know who has an issue with this, maybe there’s some dogs which caused an issue on some planes. But for him he was so well behaved, he never had any issues, so it sucks for him.”
She added: “That was a perk of them having the emotional support title because you can hold them and touch them but without that letter they had to be in the carrier and under the seat in front of you for the whole flight, which is pretty difficult for the dog to stay for three or four hours in one spot.
“He is pretty cramped in the bag so it is pretty hard to be flying with him. It’s not the same anymore. I’m definitely not going to be travelling as much anymore as it’s such a hassle.”
Dog owner Lyba Ch has also found the new rules to be complex. She owns Border Collie-Greek Pyrenees cross puppy, Sufi, and is training her to be a service dog - a challenge she described as possible to do yourself but “literally hell” - but in the meantime has been able to get her prescribed as an ESA.
Lyba, who has been diagnosed with PTSD and is going onto disability assistance, said she found the process to get Sufi onto her flight to Toronto with Flair Air this month to be “hell” after paying $100 to have her in the cabin and getting a therapist’s letter prescribing her dog as an ESA, only to be told by the airline that the letter needed to come from a doctor instead.
Lyba said: “I was looking into it and if your dog is over 22lbs, including the carrier, they’re not allowed to sit with you, and I was like, she will go psycho if I get out of her sight and she hates to be contained.
“She’s good, she behaves - she slept through the whole flight. She’s at least 20lbs - so I thought, there’s no way I can’t. Getting in contact with somebody and getting the information was hell. I told them I’m training her to be a service dog and they were like, where’s your ID and stuff, and it was hell but they were extremely helpful and I got her in for free.”
She added that although it's a much longer procedure to get Sufi certified as a service dog, she’s “trying to get to the next step because ESA is not enough - and that’s literally because the government doesn’t recognise them because of how easy it is.
“ESA not being recognized is so limiting and almost completely useless in the real world.”
How do emotional support animals compare with service animals?
The BC Guide Dog and Service Dog Act specifies that guide and service dogs are “trained to perform specific tasks to assist a person with a disability” and need to be certified by an accredited school or pass a public safety test to be officially considered as one.
Service and guide dogs are protected under law, meaning they cannot be denied entry to public spaces that usually restrict animals from entering or denied a tenancy based on the fact they are animals.
This is in stark contrast to ESAs - although they provide comfort to their owners and ease anxiety through their companionship, they cannot be considered as service dogs as they do not perform specific tasks. ESAs also do not have the right to enter public spaces where animals are not usually allowed.
Why did the US change their rules?
The US DOT said in a final ruling in December 2020 that regulations were being changed on flights after travellers had abused the previous ESA policy by “fraudulently representing their pets as service animals”, as well as a reported increase in misbehavior by ESAs, which included “biting, growling and lunging” and peeing on the floor of aircraft.
The agency added that the disruption caused by requests for unusual pets to be brought onboard “has eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.”
Previously, pets considered as an ESA - anything from a dog or cat to a horse or a peacock - were allowed to travel with owners in the cabin on flights without any restrictions. To travel with their emotional support animal, owners simply needed a letter from a mental health professional explaining that their pet contributes towards their psychological well being.
After the US Department of Transport changed their policies to no longer allow them on board, larger ESAs that cannot fit in a carry-on crate need to be stowed in the hold.
Are there any other options for travellers?
Whereas Air Canada only allows small cats or dogs in the cabin in a carrier, Westjet also allows guests to bring birds and rabbits in the cabin, as long as they are in a carrier.
The airline also operates a Specialty Dogs policy, which allows dogs “trained to perform tasks such as search and rescue, avalanche searches, or to provide comfort therapy to another individual (for example for someone in a hospital, retirement home, nursing home, hospice or disaster area).”
When asked whether the specific wording of “comfort therapy” could be considered to be understood as an ESA to some travellers, Ms Kruger confirmed that it would not be considered to cover ESAs, adding the airline would review and update this section on their website to ensure clarity for all guests.
However, travellers wanting to fly with their ESA are not completely out of options.
AirTransat, Canada’s third largest airline, still accepts ESAs in the cabin as before - provided the animal is a dog.
Although the airline did not respond to a request for comment on whether it plans to implement similar changes like Air Canada and Westjet, its website says: “When accompanied by certification and documentation and travelling with a person with a disability, emotional support and certified service dogs are welcome in the passenger cabin of our aircraft.”
It also specifies that “a support dog must have been trained to behave in public settings and take direction, be at least 6 months old and be able to manage without access to relief facilities for extended periods of time.”
However, ESA dogs will need to also undergo an obedience test upon check-in, where the dog will be required to stay as well as come to its owner on command.
Could the rules change?
A spokesperson for the Canadian Transport Agency said: “Any policy regarding the acceptance of service animals other than dogs and emotional support animals must be included in the carrier's tariff.
“Carriers that previously accepted other service animals and/or emotional support animals may choose to continue to recognize these types of animals and transport them free of charge pursuant to the carrier's established policy. Carriers are strongly encouraged to have policies to provide clarity to persons with disabilities who require these types of animals in order to travel.”