Emotional support animals fly for free; some say people are gaming the system

Therapy animals are considered the new trend among air travelers, but doctors are warning about the dangers of trying to trick the system just to get a cheaper ticket. FOX 10's Danielle Miller reports.

- They provide emotional support for those who need it and even though therapy animals are widely used, some are concerned that more and more people who don't actually need them, are bringing them on flights.

Therapy animals are considered the new trend among air travelers, but doctors are warning about the dangers of trying to trick the system just to get a cheaper ticket. 

So what are the rules? What are your rights regarding therapy animals on a plane?

Almost every major airline allows any type of emotional support animal to fly for free. The owner has to have a signed letter from a licensed mental health professional, saying that the animal decreases their symptoms from whatever they are suffering from.

It is a touchy subject, but many people are saying a lot of these people are faking a disorder to save money.

"We actually don't even have to write the diagnosis on the letter to prove to housing or to the airlines what diagnosis they have, we can just say that they are under our care and they have a diagnosis that is supported by this animal," said Dr. Kristen Ray, Behavioral Health Director at Bayless Healthcare Group.

Traveling with an emotional support animal: is it a problem? According to Ray, it may be. She says she's seeing an increase of people coming in, looking to get a signed note saying that person needs the animal. This note is required for the animal to fly free -- out of a carrier and in the cabin.

"The person who is requesting to have an emotionally supportive animal has to have a psychiatric provider, so a psychologist, psychiatrist, or physician, or a mental health professional write them a letter that says they are under the care of that person and that they have a mental health issue," explained Ray.

An emotional support animal can be a wide variety of animals, from dogs to cats and even pigs.

"It could be for depression, for anxiety, could be for PTSD and they can typically reduce symptoms like anxiety, heart rate, loneliness, things like that," said Ray.

Jonathan Fruitkin with the Fruitkin Law Firm says those gaming the system are usually doing so to save a buck.

"Ultimately, a lot of things that we're seeing here have to do with how expensive it is to fly with a dog, so it's $125 to fly with a dog without the note, but with the note it's free," he said.

Fruitkin says any doctor writing a note knowing the person doesn't have a mental health problem could lose his or her license.


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