Can I Pet Your Emotional Support Horse?

by | Feb 25, 2020


In 2004 I was at my gate at O’Hare getting ready to board an American Airlines flight when I heard the following over the intercom: “will passenger Jennings please report to the gate agent.” Wow. The gate agent informed me that I was to be seated next to a woman with a support animal and asked if I had any objections. I responded, “well, I guess it depends on what kind of animal.” She said, “it’s a goose.”

How could I pass up riding next to a goose? Anywho – it was an amazing trip – I’ll spare you the details, but I sat next to Portia, a Toulouse Goose – probably about 50 pounds. She wore little goose diapers and didn’t like takeoffs or landings. It was a really cool experience for me.

What was rare nearly 20 years ago – seeing a support animal on the plane – is now a common occurrence. According to the AP, “Southwest Airlines handles more than 190,000 emotional support animals per year. American Airlines carried 155,790 emotional support animals in 2017, up 48% from 2016.” While some people legitimately require an emotional support animal to fly, the airlines assert that many people claim their pets as a support animal to avoid paying the extra charge to transport a non-support pet. While dogs are a common support pet, other animals such as pigs, squirrels, snakes, peacocks, geese, and miniature horses are used with varying success as emotional support animals.

Note that support animals are not the same as service animals. Service animals are specially trained to perform a function for a disabled individual while support animals typically are not specially trained. Support animals provide emotional or psychological support and are qualified as such by a mere letter from a mental health professional.

This past summer the U.S. Department of Transportation tightened up the rules for traveling with support animals by allowing airlines to require documentation of the animal’s training, vaccination, and proof that the animal is a support animal. The DOT rules also instruct airlines to give priority to dogs, cats, and miniature horses as species that are acceptable support animals and suggest that airlines can be skeptical of other species. How/why are miniature horses prioritized? According to the New York Times, “For some blind people . . . guide horses serve as a compelling alternative to guide dogs. The animals are mild-mannered and fast learners, with nearly 360-degree vision. They may also offer balance support to individuals with physical disabilities.”

Last month the DOT proposed a rule that only specially trained dogs will be recognized as support animals. The rule is proposed and possibly will go into effect after a 60 day comment period.


  1. I just love that that goose didn’t like take-offs and landings, which geese are generally familiar with. As a pilot, I have sat and watched geese take off and land for hours – different than planes, but sometimes, over a smooth body of water, they get close. ‘Course, as passengers, they have no control, and I am sure that’s what freaks out some people passengers too.

  2. J— I love traveling with you for many of the same reasons you enjoyed your time with that goose. You are endlessly interesting and have non-correlated emotional and behavioral characteristics to me—- very calming in the midst of stressful air travel. Plus, you pay for your own seat! Lov2Nap

  3. my sister had her dog qualify as a support animal – while Max (the dog) is amazing, most of the family views it as a way to get the dog on our vacations — and I love the dog my sister does tend to push the envelope on most rules, has all her life 🙂


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