carry-on cats going through airport security

Airplane Allergy Attack vs. Emotional Support Animal

American Airlines no longer serves those little bags of peanuts. Apparently, the mere possibility of parts per billion of peanut dust in the cabin air is unacceptable.

This is done out of respect for the passengers with peanut allergies, which is a much smaller number than the public perceives.

Delta peanut bagsOnly 1.4% of Americans test positive for a peanut allergy.

Out of that 1.4%, just a fraction of them actually have a severe form with anaphylaxis (1).

An estimated 15% of people are allergic to cats and dogs (2). That’s 10x higher than the number of people with a peanut allergy. For those with severe asthma, a cat can kill them. Especially when it’s a young boy or girl who has that disease and allergy, which often go together like two peas in a pod. Not even the best steroid inhalers and nebulizer machines can do much to help an attack.

A parent with an asthmatic child can testify to this. Or perhaps you are asthmatic yourself and have had your own hospital horror stories and near death experiences from asthma and allergy attacks.

Given these facts, you would think more scrutiny would be given to bringing pets on planes.

Nope.

If you’re among that 15%, you are now in more danger of an airplane allergy attack than ever before.

We live in a society which is overly obsessed with food allergies, at least relative to other forms like airborne dander and pollen. Apparently, those are no longer exciting enough to warrant public attention. It’s much more popular to fixate on leaky gut and lectins, not the old school problems.

Even we admit that and we are a health food website. Cut from the same cloth of people who are often guilty of overhyping food allergens!

Do pet free airlines exist? Not really.

Some carriers have polices limiting the number of pets which can be in the cabin at a given time, but those won’t offer much relief.

For example on domestic flights, Delta’s pet policy for carry-ons allows for “only” 8 animals; a max of 2 in first class, 2 in business, and 4 in the main cabin. In some scenarios it’s even possible for the number to be higher, as many as 16 kitties and puppies per plane ride:

“Two pets of the same species and size between the age of 10 weeks and 6 months may be allowed to travel in one kennel, provide they are small enough to fit into one kennel and are compatible. They will be charged as one pet.”

But wait, that’s the good news.

At least there’s a limit.

The bad news is that the number of “emotional support animals” is unlimited on U.S. airlines, thanks to exploitation of the law.

The legitimacy of getting a prescription for an ESA seems comparable to buying Viagra over the internet. It’s not that hard to do.

With the drug at least, these days the government does a fairly good job regulating those sales, unlike 20 years ago during the wild west days of dial-up and Infoseek.

With a mental health therapy pet, the regulation seems to be much more relaxed. At least for drugs, the reputable online prescribers set a minimum age for consideration. Not always the case when it comes to buying an ESA certification.

Maybe that’s why there was that immature teen, Instragramming photos of her “adorable” cat as she played with it in the lap of her first-class seat, to the obvious annoyment of the person next to her trying to eat. Something we actually saw recently.

Oh but wait, the feline is needed for her “emotional support.”

Apparently, we are supposed to give her the exact same treatment as physically disabled people who desperately need service animals just to get around.

Wounded Warrior Project service dogBecause you know, her situation is apparently no different than the blind war vet who had her eyes blown out by an IED in Iraq.

Both equally legit, right?

Speaking of seeing eye dogs, those are 70% Labrador Retrievers, 15% Golden Retrievers, and 15% German Shepherds (3). Very allergen-friendly breeds, on a relative basis.

On the other hand, these “emotional support” creatures are often the absolute worst nightmare of asthma and allergy sufferers. Cats, cats, and more cats. Or perhaps the occasional pug which is a much different dog breed – it has course shedding fur which is famous for triggering hives in many people.

Even when an ESA is legit – and yes, plenty are – can’t they have a more allergy friendly pet if they want to carry it in an airplane cabin?

If a Golden Retriever is good enough for our brave vets who have risked their lives for us, then it certainly seems like the breed should be sufficient for people needing a therapy pet, too. Why do so many of these ESA letter carriers need to have cats?

Beyond cats, here is United Airline’s policy as to what animals they accept:

“Service animals and Emotional Support/Psychiatric Assist animals can include, but is not limited to, dogs, miniature horses, monkeys, cats and birds.”

Okay, let’s get this straight. FAA guidelines won’t allow you to sit in the exit row if you can’t move fast enough in the event of an emergency. Yet, having a friggin’ horse on the plane is safe in the event of an emergency?!

green anaconda
green anaconda

The list of what animals qualify as an ESA, according to the National Service Animal Registry, sounds to be almost anything:

“All domesticated animals may qualify as an ESA (cats, dog, mice, rabbits, birds, snakes, hedgehogs, rats, mini pigs, ferrets, etc.)”

Snakes on a plane? This gives a whole new meaning to that.

If you think people aren’t bringing these exotic animals on board, think again. In 2016, someone brought a turkey on a Delta flight thanks to this law. It turns out that birds as emotional support animals are a popular niche within this booming industry.

search trends for emotional support animal

The growth in Google search trends for this during the past 7 years makes the rise of the S&P 500 look dismal.

When you peruse around this topic, the top search suggestions are things like how to get an emotional support animal, or how to make my cat an ESA.

Presumably, people should be having this discussion with their psychiatrist. After all, if they truly need to carry their cat around like an accessory, then they should probably be under full time monitoring by a psychiatrist. Because that is some heavy stuff.

As it turns out though, at least some folks getting these ESA letters aren’t regularly seeing a psychiatrist. You can buy them with “instant approval” online.

Then there are those who don’t know how to ask their doctor for the certification. Among them, do some people not want to ask, because they would feel guilty doing so?

Maybe it’s kind of like how you wouldn’t know how to ask your doctor for a handicap parking placard, because you walked into the office just fine. Obviously, you asking for that parking pass would be a total scam.

But when you can do something online, any awkward face to face conversation with your longtime doctor doesn’t need to take place.

And if you are lying or embellishing, you may not fear being called out for that by a total stranger a thousand miles away, via an online submission form.

Whether a person’s need is real or a hoax is a complicated issue. But what we can say is that we have encountered numerous people who fall into the latter category. That’s not an opinion either, as they fully admit it. Some have even bragged about how easy it was for them to get a letter.

Online, you will see countless ads peddling legitimate emotional support animal registration.

ESA results

You can buy them with a “100% money back guarantee” at a price which may be less than what you pay to carry your pet on just one flight.

Delta charges $125. Offers abound at $99 or less for buying an ESA letter.

Some have overnight shipping available and “instant approval” which seem like terms better suited for a credit card application.

Mental health is a very complex issue. If a doctor or mental health worker can offer an “instant” diagnosis via an online submission form for a disease or disorder, they are among the most brilliant psychoanalysts to ever walk the face of the earth.

Since the words you see for some of these are “instant approval” and “overnight” it naturally infers that the decision is not being based on some long term doctor–patient relationship.

Cat allergies in flight? Who cares!

During a recent Delta flight, the editor-in-chief here at Superfoodly encountered not one, but two pets directly in front of him. Within his written complaint to Delta, he describes it:

“Upon boarding my flight from LAX to MCO, within just a matter of minutes of being seated, my eyes were watery, my nose was running, and I could not breathe as I was having an asthma attack. I had no idea why, as I was not sick. These symptoms continued to worsen and it wasn’t until half way into the flight that the cause appeared, literally. A dog ran from under the seat in front of me to the bathroom at the front of the plane. Eventually a flight attendant brought the dog back and instead of scolding the passenger, she encouraged her by telling her how cute her dog was. Rather than put the dog away, the customer continued to play with it outside of its carrier, just 3 feet in front of me. Being a pug, it shed a lot everywhere. This prompted the worst allergen culprit – the passenger next to the dog then got out her cat to play with…”

If you think that was a fluke, think again. A therapy dog running around happened not once, but numerous times, as even Delta admits in their response to this complaint:

“Thanks for writing about your trip on November 23, 2016 from LAX to MCO on Flight 1061. I’m sorry you’re allergic to pet dander and experienced discomfort due to another passenger’s (ESA) emotional support animal. The situation you described sounds very unpleasant and I truly hope you are feeling better now.

To thoroughly address your concerns, I requested reports from the manager of the flight crew on duty. The crew did recall the events you described but didn’t remember speaking with you. The reports state a pug did roam the cabin three times and the flight leader asked the owner to keep the animal at her seat. However, anytime the passenger went to the restroom the dog would follow her. The flight leader wrote up a complaint and spoke with the passenger discreetly about Delta’s guidelines.

Based on the information received, I’ve determined that a violation of 14CFR, Part 382 did not occur on Flight 116. While we are required by law to allow passengers to travel with their service animals…”

The response, while polite and thorough, is inadequate.

For starters, Delta’s website clearly states:

“Your pet must remain inside the kennel (with door secured) while in a Delta boarding area (during boarding and deplaning), a Delta airport lounge and while onboard the aircraft.”

If a dog got loose not once, but three different times, then obviously a “door” was not secured.

cat inside of woman's designer purseWhich brings to light another issue… are these people carrying their emotional support cat or dog in something that even has a door on it?!

Try a Louis Vuitton or similar bag. There was no metal “door” on this woman’s fancy leather bag with her pooch inside.

Those aspects aside, in defense of Delta (and United, American Americans, Southwest, Virgin, etc.) their hands are tied when it comes to the underlying issue. If the law allows people to bring these therapy animals for anxiety and depression, obviously the airline has to abide by it.

How the problem started

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) was passed in direct response to Supreme Court ruling involving the case Paralyzed Veterans of America vs. U.S. Department of Transportation.

Help for the paralyzed is quite different than what the ACAA has morphed into over the years.

Now under the ACAA, anyone is entitled to travel with their pet if a mental health professional certifies it offers them emotional help for a mental condition. With a certified letter, the airline must allow the therapy pet on board and isn’t even allowed to legally ask that passenger any questions about why they need it.

Unlike a highly trained guide dog for the blind, these “emotional support” animals can be your run of the mill mutt or alley cat. If Fido can’t even sit or rollover, no problem!

Worse yet, when it’s safe to do so, these passengers are often allowed to have these potentially untrained animals in their lap while flying, for the passenger’s therapeutic and emotional well-being.

How about the well-being of others nearby?!

Why do we have a law which allows for an individual to impose allergic attacks on a whopping 15% of the population? Remember, that’s 10x the number of people with peanut allergies.

coach cabin on United airlinesIt’s not like we’re talking about encountering a feral cat roaming the street. It’s your choice whether to walk the sidewalks or not.

For long distance travel, flying is the only option you have. You have no other alternative. You are forced to be exposed to these potentially life threatening situations if you are asthmatic and have cat allergies.

And life threatening they can be.

On a flight out of Seattle, before the plane even left the gate, a good friend of Superfoodly went into a life-threatening anaphylactic shock from a cat on-board several years ago. Wheeled off and rushed to the hospital, he nearly died and one arm almost had to be amputated. To this very day, he has a long-term disability as a result – permanent limited mobility in that arm.

His allergy is an extremely severe case. So bad in fact, that his role in a 4x Oscar-winning movie had to be cut short, due to the tiger encounters.

As far as Superfoodly’s editor and his recent encounter on that Delta flight, he was flying cross-country for his grandparents 65th wedding anniversary. With a tight schedule, he had to be in and out fast, which meant that celebration was within hours – not days – of landing.

It wasn’t enough time to recover, which meant this very special event was marked with severe wheezing, watery eyes, and a nose like a faucet. His grandfather was diagnosed with stage IV cancer just days later and died within weeks. That means their last memory together was affected by this attack, as it hampered communication. All because in today’s twisted society, one person’s entitlement of “emotional support” from a highly-allergic pet takes precedence over 15% of the population’s health.

Despite that peanut allergies only affect 1.4% of the population, the idea of not eating them on-board just in case doing so might hurt a child nearby is a measure we support.

Given that 15% of people are allergic to these furry friends, it seems extending the same courtesy to them is a no-brainer.

airplane cat carrierAt the very least, limiting the allowed ESA animal types to more allergy-friendly breeds. Like those used for guide dogs. Or something like Portuguese water dogs, which is what the former First Family got for The White House, because of Malia Obama’s dog allergy.

If you’re contemplating how to get an emotional support animal prescription for yourself, please keep in mind how that decision can affect the lives of other people.

Your motive might just be to avoid paying that pet carry-on fee, or the enjoyment of bringing your cat on vacation. Both are understandable.

But by re-classifying the cat as a disability animal, suddenly it no longer counts for the quota of animals in-cabin.

With so many people doing this, flying has turned into a nightmare for those with allergies. Strategically shuffling seats when there are 4 animals to avoid in the cabin is a lot easier than when there is an unlimited number present.

Or perhaps your motive is to avoid the cost of boarding your pet. That too is understandable, given the costs of kennels these days. But by you saving yourself money, you may be costing others – both their money and time – due the side effects endured from cats and high allergen dog breeds.

The question doesn’t seem to be whether you can get a therapy pet letter, because as the law currently stands, it doesn’t seem to be too difficult.

The question is a moral one… do you honestly and legitimately need it? Is your need of comfort and convenience more important than that of other people?

If the anxiety and stress of flying are the reason, try the excellent advice Tom Bunn wrote.