The Current

How dogs, ducks and horses end up as emotional support animals — and allowed on planes

Peacocks as support animals? Hazy rules and laws as to what constitutes an emotional support animal have created a complicated situation — and rife for abuse.
Annie McCullough travels on planes with her French bulldog Frankie; she suffers from PTSD so her doctor gave her a letter to use Frankie as her emotional support dog. (Anne Penman/CBC)
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You may have noticed more cats, dogs and other animals on your flights lately.

United Airlines says there has been a 75 per cent increase in the number of emotional support animals accompanying passengers on board. The issue boiled over this week when the airline wouldn't let a peacock on one of their planes, after a passenger claimed it was her support animal.

Hazy rules and laws as to what constitutes an emotional support animal have made the situation even trickier — and rife for abuse.

Annie McCullough travels on planes with her French bulldog Frankie; she suffers from PTSD so her doctor gave her a letter to use Frankie as her emotional support dog. They live in Vancouver.

McCullough said getting a letter from her doctor was key to allowing Frankie on a plane. 'It's not just that I wanted him. He was almost prescribed,' she told The Current. (Submitted by Annie McCullough)

"There is a relationship and a bond between him and I that I think is part of what helps me feel grounded and calm when he is with me," she said.

She worries incidents like the peacock one cause public backlash and airline crackdowns which could put flying with Frankie in jeopardy. Both United and Delta announced more stringent measures this week to screen animals, their owners and to try to prevent fraud.

"There are people out there who have discovered that the system is still new and flawed," she said. "It doesn't take that much effort to get certain pieces of identification that would make the animal appear to be an emotional support [one]. So the system is definitely being abused."

Westjet allows pigs, monkeys

Both major Canadian airlines — Air Canada and Westjet — clearly outline what they accept as emotional support animals and the documentation that needs to go with them. Air Canada only allows dogs while Westjet is a lot more lenient, allowing "emotional support dogs, cats, miniature horses, pigs and monkeys" if they meet qualifications.

But it's not just on airplanes. Workplaces and housing units are also having to deal with requests for emotional support animals.

What constitutes an emotional support animal is open for interpretation, with horses, pigs, monkeys and even kangaroos being claimed as emotionally supportive and allowed on flights in documented instances. (pixabay.com)

Toronto lawyer Kelly Doctor specializes in human rights and labour law and has seen a spike of these cases at her practice.

She is worried that the law hasn't kept pace with the growing need for emotional support.

Doctor points out how complex these situations can be, complicated by others who are afraid of animals, have allergies or religious objections.

"Emotional support animals can be difficult because if they don't have specific and stringent training, it becomes a lot more difficult to know if they're going to be safe in any kind of environment."

'Any animal can be an emotional animal'

Others have claimed ducks, turkeys and kangaroos as their emotional support animals.

Though the thought of a kangaroo in first class may be funny, anthrozoologist Beth Daly said it is hard to tell someone they aren't being emotionally supported by their animal, regardless of how bizarre it is.

"Any animal can be an emotional animal and that is exactly why we're talking about this issue so much these days because there are so many different people who have so many different preferences and so many different type of relationships with their animals," she said.

"It would make sense that one might justify their emotional improvement from their interaction with a spider. It's not something that I perhaps would benefit from or you but different people will make different justifications based on what they're getting alleviated symptoms from."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann, Rosa Kim and Amra Pasic.

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