Some Pet Owners Game the Emotional Support Animal System to Fly Pets for Free

Airlines let emotional support animals fly for free with a doctor's note.

ByABC News
April 3, 2015, 7:43 AM

— -- Emotional support animals can help people suffering from anxiety and other emotional disorders, but some pet owners are gaming the system in order to have their everyday pets travel with them for free.

Federal regulations allow a legitimate emotional support animal, whether it be a dog, a cat, a pot-bellied pig or even a miniature horse in one case, to travel on airplanes in the cabin with the owner, outside of a carrier, and for free if the owner has proper documentation, which means a letter from a doctor or other mental health professional. The animal must be well-behaved and there must be adequate space onboard. The airlines are allowed to ask people traveling with emotional support animals for that documentation, but they are not required to.

Genevieve from Atlanta, who asked that her last name not be used, told ABC News’ “20/20” she never had a need for an emotional support animal, or ESA. She simply wanted to fly with her dog, a lab-terrier mix named Kali, by her side in the cabin of the plane. So, about four years ago, she said she lied about having an emotional illness so that Kali could become an emotional support animal.

“I heard from a friend ... that you could get your dog certified as something called an ‘emotional support animal,’ an ESA, and at the time, I thought it was a very good idea,” Genevieve said. “I had wanted to take flights with her for family functions. ... At that point, I thought, ‘what’s the harm?’”

PHOTO: Genevieve took an online psychological questionnaire to obtain a letter to qualify her dog Kali as an emotional support animal.
Genevieve took an online psychological questionnaire to obtain a letter to qualify her dog Kali as an emotional support animal.

Genevieve found a website that provided a psychological evaluation for free, all she had to do was fill out a questionnaire.

“It was a website where I was able to ... answer questions and possible emotional symptoms I had, and if I answered them in a certain way, I could get a diagnosis,” she said.

Genevieve said she provided fake answers for the psychological questionnaire, and received the special letter she needed to show she was permitted to have an emotional support animal. She said the diagnosis she was given was a “panic attack disorder.”

Once she had the letter, Genevieve said, "I could begin taking [Kali] on airplanes with me."

Emotional support animals help people by being companions, unlike service dogs, which are trained to perform specific tasks to help people with physical and mental disabilities.

Paul Mundell, the CEO of Canine Companions for Independence, said emotional support animals “provide a valuable service” to people who need them. The problem is there are some pet owners like Genevieve who find it easy to take advantage of the law and the airlines.

“I flew about six times with Kali and I think they looked at my letter twice,” Genevieve said.

To see how easy it is to have a pet fly for free as an emotional support animal, ABC News bought meaningless certificates, instead of getting a letter from a mental health professional, proclaiming three different animals as emotional support animals and tried to get those animals on three different airlines.

First, we got our correspondent’s 28-pound dog Archie declared an emotional support animal through, where for a fee of $254, with expedited shipping, we bought the deluxe kit, which included a leash, a vest, a photo ID and a certificate with Archie’s name and registration number.

While the paperwork looked official, in reality, it had no meaning. The website mentioned the need to have a doctor’s note, but did not ask for any proof.