While service animals are becoming more and more common, some critics question their legitimacy, and businesses face tough decisions about accommodating all kinds of animals. Additionally, the ubiquity of emotional support pets can sometimes cause confusion, with people failing to distinguish between them and trained service animals. In their travels and daily lives, Americans view emotional support and service animals with vastly different perspectives — and they have plenty of strong opinions.
To study these issues in greater detail, Upgraded Points, a leading travel company, surveyed 992 respondents, where 282 had a service dog, 133 had an emotional support animal and 577 had neither. Of the 577 respondents without a service dog or emotional support animal, 400 owned a dog. The respondent pool was 61.3% female, 38.2% male and less than 1% choosing another option. The survey analyzed their attitudes about animals in various settings, particularly travel, while exploring potential concerns and frustrations.
Service Animals or Emotional Support Animals?
Although federal law mandates that businesses, including airlines, must accommodate requests from consumers for service animals, there are distinct differences between service animals (usually dogs) and emotional support animals. Service dogs are specifically trained to assist their owners in some capacity, usually compensating for a disability or medical condition. Among respondents with service dogs, many reported that their canine companions helped them cope with PTSD, mobility issues or sensory challenges, such as blindness. Conversely, emotional support animals need no specific training; their presence alone helps comfort their owners. Typically, emotional support animals are intended to aid people with diagnosed mental health challenges. Of respondents who had them, 91% said their pets helped them with anxiety, while over 72% said their animals helped with depression.
Cost also represents a key distinction between service dogs and emotional support animals. Respondents with service dogs, on average, paid roughly $2,400 for them, although this price likely represents just a fraction of total training costs. On average, people with emotional support pets spent $77 to get their animals registered as such. While the low cost of certification may aid those in need, some fear it serves to incentivize false claims.
Airlines typically charge $125 to transport a pet on a one-way journey. Compared to paying that price, getting one’s pet certified can seem like a real bargain. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that 26% of respondents with pets wanted to get their animals registered.
Setting and Skepticism as Factors in Consumer Attitudes
Should service dogs and emotional support animals be accommodated equally? On this question, respondents were notably divided: While over 53% felt they should be dealt with equally, nearly 47% disagreed. It’s possible those who disagreed reject the value of emotional support animals altogether. Yet, their sentiments may also stem from fears about malfeasance. Most survey responders believe that pet owners abuse service animal policies to their own benefit.
A significant factor coming into play was the specifics of the situation/setting in which service animals were being used — 49% stated that their use was not appropriate in restaurants, and 35% of the responders did not wish to see them in grocery stores. These findings could reflect concerns about behavior. For example, because emotional support animals are not necessarily trained for various settings, they could certainly misbehave in the presence of food.
Frustrations and Complications with Air Travel
Service and emotional support animals are often discussed in the context of travel, and passengers were most likely to be annoyed by their presence on planes. Respondents readily shared tales of poorly behaved pooches on planes and cats causing allergic reactions in airports. In light of these experiences, airlines and transportation officials have sought to regulate emotional support animals more aggressively, especially as they become more common on American flights.
With reference specifically to air travel, greater than 10% of the survey responders had either observed an in-flight issue with a pet while flying or were directly involved in a situation themselves. Moreover, scientists assert that animals can suffer when subjected to air travel, which can be overstimulating and frightening. Perhaps for these reasons, most of the survey responders who used service dogs indicated that they chose not to fly with them, and only 1 in 11 of those with emotional support animals chose to fly with them.
Still, respondents were largely in favor of animals being allowed on board for legitimate reasons. Almost 79% said animals should be allowed in the cabin of the plane, although support differed significantly by species. Eighty-eight percent said dogs were acceptable in the cabin, while 54% approved of cats.
There is a mix of strong sentiments, illuminating the complexity of the debate regarding accommodations involving animals. The majority of respondents supported allowing animals on planes, for example, yet most also believed that pet owners abuse well-intentioned policies. Similarly, results indicate many important reasons that people use animals for service and emotional support. But by the same token, these findings reveal legitimate objections to animals’ presence, such as serious allergies.
There’s no perfect way to resolve these conflicting preferences in public settings. But the least we can do is suspend our assumptions and take the time to consider others. Before rolling your eyes at the next support animal you see, consider the good that pet might be doing for its owner. And if you’re tempted to sneak an animal on board by illegitimate means, think of the other passengers who might suffer due to your duplicity. After all, we all want to safely get to our next destination. Being understanding and selfless will help you and those around you to get the most out of your traveling experiences.