Traveling with a Comfort Animal

traveling with a comfort dog

This blog post has changed due to an amendment by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that passed in December 2020. Due to this amendment, traveling with a comfort animal does not guarantee that your pet can fly in the cabin at no cost anymore. All animals serving disabled passengers in the cabin must be dogs (no cats, ducks, peacocks, pigs or other animals).

Related: More information on the DOT amendment

What is a comfort animal?

Comfort animals (emotional support animals or ESAs) assist their owners with mental disabilities as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Although these pet animals were recognized as providing a valuable service, they are no longer offered the protections offered to service dogs in the ACAA.

Therefore, comfort animals, including dogs, are no longer allowed to fly at no charge in the cabin as service dogs.

What is a service animal?

This amendment clearly defines a service animal as a dog that is trained to perform specific tasks for disabled passengers. Under this amendment, service dogs must perform at least one of the daily functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for themselves.

As all US-based airlines as well as those who fly in and out of the US are subject to regulations of the Airline Carrier Access Act and must accept service animals. Airlines may ask whether the service dog is accompanying the person due to a disability, and what task they perform to assist their owner. They may not ask what the disability is that the service dog is addressing, although oftentimes, this is obvious.

The dog must be clearly marked with a vest or harness identifying it as such and always leashed.

Requirements for notification may include two forms that are issued by the US DOT and notification to the airlines a minimum of 48 hours prior to departure.

The need for a service dog for a passenger who has eyesight, mobility or balance impairments is clear. Additionally, seizure alert dogs are included in this classification.  However, psychiatric needs are less defined. 

Passengers with psychiatric or medical disabilities

Recent research suggests that people with psychiatric disabilities can benefit significantly from animals. Dogs have been proven extremely effective at ameliorating the symptoms of these disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, by providing therapeutic nurture and support. It appears that some airlines are classifying dogs that provide this support as service dogs despite lack of official training.

What is expected when traveling with a service or comfort dog?

All dogs providing assistance to their owners must behave properly around other people or animals. When flying, they must not impede cabin operations and their size must allow them to fly without affecting other passengers.

Dogs must be socialized, be mannerly, and show no signs of aggression to other passengers or cabin crew.

Service dogs must be trained to perform an identifiable and necessary task for their handlers. They should provide this service consistently and not be distracted by other activity around them.

Service dogs must have an even temperament and remain calm and focused on serving their passenger.

Find more information on flying with comfort, service and therapy dogs.

Pet owners who are traveling with comfort or service dogs should notify their airlines will in advance of travel to ensure that there are no questions on travel day.


Traveling with a Comfort Animal — 11 Comments

  1. Joan – the pets you are seeing are undoubtedly emotional support animals. I agree that owners of these animals should keep them on their laps whenever possible. Pets are not allowed on vacant seats, no matter if they are ESAs or regular dogs traveling in a carrier with their owner. Six pets are allowed per flight on Southwest which is a very generous policy. Southwest also has one of the lowest pet fees. Due to events as of late, flight attendants may have softened their enforcement; however, when other passengers are inconvenienced, the rules should be enforced.

  2. I travel almost weekly for business (x 2 years) and have noted an increase in the number of dogs on SW flights. 3 times in the last 6 months: 3 dogs not in carriers, 2 dogs not in carrier sitting on plane seat and Flgt attendant only gave gentle reprimand and walked off; one dog in carrier also placed on middle seat, one large dog entered priority boarding and sat in back of plane.
    I actually like both dogs and cats and have owned both but just don’t get the increasing numbers of people traveling w/pets and total lack of enforcement of airline policy.
    Why should animals sit on ‘furniture’ and why can’t/won’t SW enforce their own rules (for the sake of the 99% who don’t bring their pets).

  3. I’m interested in traveling to some places I haven’t been at and this article is informative regarding which airlines could be preferred. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Does anyone have any consideration they are people out there that are allergic to dogs and cats? So we can have animals that make people ill and can’t breath on a flight in the cabin now? What about their rights. This is going too far.

  5. Southwest airline allows comfort animals and does
    not charge, they do check your document.

  6. This information is in error. The DOT requires airlines to permit emotional support animals with proper documentation to fly in cabin with their disabled owners. A therapy animal is a pet that visits hospitals and nursing homes to cheer up the residents. The owner is not necessarily disabled. The Air Carrier Access Act, which gives these rights applies only to disabled people who need the presence of their emotional support animals in order to fly. It does not apply to therapy animals. Read more here: That article includes information on the documentation required from a mental health provider and a link to the actual regulations that explain how it all works.
    The above comment is correct. The ADA rules only apply to Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals and psychiatric service animals. You will need proper documentation and it is adviseable to notify the airline well in advance as they may require advance proof of the need. You should also remember that foreign flagged airlines may or may not observe the rules as stated above.

  7. thank you. now i know which airlines to avoid. I am very happy to see the World’s Least Favourite Airline on the list.

  8. I called Hawaiian Airlines and made arrangements to fly with my comfort pet from HI To WA. I had a letter with me, and I had told them my comfort pet is a bird. When I arrived, they told me that they accepted only dogs and cats as comfort pets and were not going to allow me to board. When I pretty much had a mental meltdown at the airport and had to be escorted to the security gate, they finally allowed me on board. I was the last one on the plane. I wound up having to leave my bird in WA, because they 100% would not allow me to take him back to HI with me in cabin. I have been trying and trying to get him back here. When I first moved to HI, I was able to bring him in cabin when I found a mistake in their contract of carriage. They have since changed that.
    I am not surprised as I am not aware of any airline that recognizes birds as comfort animals. You can probably make arrangements to transport the bird as air cargo.

  9. We get our information from ADA Americans with Disabilities Act. In order to qualify, you must have a prescription from a medical doctor on that doctor’s letterhead stating your pet is vital to your health.

  10. Please show me exactly where you got your information, I looked in FAA/DOT and could not find anything. I am going to my Doctors on Monday and I would like to show him valid proof not hear-say. I will be traveling to Hawaii and believe me it takes a lot to get service animal on the plane especially when it is a Psychiatric therapy dog. I am hoping for Heart Attack documentation but I still need to be able to show him exactly what it says and where it says it. Thanks email me at

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