The fine line between service animals and emotional support animals

service dog

“United Airlines Denies Boarding to Emotional Service Animal…a Peacock.”

I’m just going to let that headline stand right there. Drink it in. Really absorb it.

An emotional support PEACOCK?

I think we can all agree that the day a performance artist looking to make a statement (eye roll) attempted to board a commercial airline with an emotional support animal in the form of a peacock, we had officially crossed over into “insanity defense” territory.

Emotional support

There has been a move in recent years to quantify pets as “service” animals using the “emotional support” banner.

The Animal Law Info site defines Emotional Support Animals thus: “The law that allows a trained service dog to accompany a person with a disability is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). An emotional support animal is an animal that provides a therapeutic benefit to its owner through companionship.”

It is, for obvious reasons, against federal law to deny access to a service animal. To get classified as a service animal, strict protocols must be met.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are sometimes self-certified by the owner and endorsed by any “doctor” they can find on the internet.

Unlike most types of assistance animals, such as service dogs, ESAs are not required to have any kind of specialized training or experience. One quick internet search netted me “how to certify an emotional support animal in three easy steps.” A credit card was required but I think for a nominal fee I could have had an emotional support goat by the end of this afternoon.

Don’t get it

Look, I applaud the move by the animal kingdom to seek gainful employment. There is no doubt that dogs, monkeys, birds and even mini horses have made great strides in service of humans. I’m sure there are some other members of the Wild Kingdom I have missed.

Nonetheless, I’m having a hard time imagining a Support Peacock? Their tails are 8 feet long, their screams are piercing, and I’m wondering how one potty trains a peacock? Do they wear a diaper?

I’m not pointing any fingers but I think peacocks are also fairly high strung. It’s bad enough to be seated near an “afraid to fly” passenger. Can you imagine riding next to an agitated peacock?

I absolutely adore my tiny dogs. I mean I am ridiculous about them. I never thought I would be a crazy, small dog “mom,” but here I am killin’ it! That said, my dogs — while adorable and probably better behaved than some humans — simply do not qualify as emotional support dogs.

Sure he makes ME tremendously happy, but I would be hard-pressed to insist I “need” him to go with me everywhere throughout the day. This is doubly so today when I have to fear that if I did take him to even the most “pet-friendly” environment, he might be accosted by an angry peacock or an emotional support python.

Granted, I think there was a movie about snakes on a plane that ruined that for everyone so I don’t think snakes are permitted to go just everywhere, yet.

A joke

All headlines and joking aside, things like emotional support peacocks are a serious concern for people with actual disabilities. This abuse of service animal laws by lumping self-defined emotional support animals rights on the same plane (pun!) puts the law in jeopardy for folks with actual disabilities.

Making it illegal to ask for proof that an Emotional Support Animal is truly certified makes it more difficult than ever for those who truly need service and support to be taken seriously.

While the peacock was denied, on other flights, birds such as cockatiels did make it through.

While airlines should not have a right to know a person’s medical history, proof of the training and testing of animals should be required.

Imagine being the TSA agent assigned to this duty?

“Are you transporting baby formula or other contraband liquids?”


“Do you have upon your person a nail file or other weapon?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Is this bird on your shoulder really necessary?”

“That is my Emotional Service Parrot, you have trampled my rights by even inquiring! You can make it up to me with pre-boarding please.”

I have to applaud the airline for standing up to something so silly. Although there go my plans to bring an Emotional Support Rhino onboard.


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Kymberly Foster Seabolt lives in rural Appalachia with the always popular Mr. Wonderful, two small dogs, one large cat, two wandering goats, and a growing extended family.


  1. I would suggest a different title for the article. There is NO fine line between ESA and service dogs. ESA are PETS – pure and simple. they provide no service and are not task-trained. It’s not a fine line but a Grand Canyon of difference!


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