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Anxiety disorder? Here's how to travel with an emotional support animal

Travel

Anxiety disorder? Here's how to travel with an emotional support animal

If you suffer from a mental illness and experience anxiety while flying, you may be able to bring an emotional support animal on board to ease the stress. Here's how.


When Air Canada denied Canadian Armed Forces veteran Kate Skywalker the use of an emotional support animal (ESA) on a flight to Halifax, the Internet was divided.

Skywalker has depression and anxiety, and believes she should be allowed to bring her cat on board without a carrier. But some say that a mental illness doesn’t require the same considerations as blindness or epilepsy. Others say her needs shouldn’t infringe on the rights of those with allergies. Many more were in her corner, arguing that Air Canada’s refusal is discriminatory.

According to Leslie Jack, a therapy dog coordinator for St. John Ambulance in Ontario, therapy animals can make a real difference to those in distress. Jack takes specially selected and trained dogs to visit with distressed adults and children in hospitals and long-term care facilities, seniors’ residences and even university campuses. “When we visit, it’s a positive distraction,” says Jack, “and within 15 seconds of petting a dog, people’s blood pressure starts to drop, anxiety is lowered and their day is brightened.”

Jack has seen similar results in people with brain injuries, PTSD and children of deployed soldiers. “No matter why it is, it works,” she says. That’s why she’s not surprised that therapy pets are key to easing anxiety around plane travel for some people. “It really is the same type of thing,” says Jack. “If people have anxiety or fear about flying, a therapy pet would be distracting and calming.”

Airlines, too, are starting to recognize the value of therapy pets in comforting passengers. But that doesn’t mean that you can simply board a plane, expecting to keep your cat or dog in your lap. While rules and regulations around flying with service and therapy pets vary, the following guidelines are a good place to start your de-stressed travel plans.

1. Make it official
Get a letter from your care provider stating that you have a diagnosed mental health issue and that you need to travel with a support animal. Ensure the letter is on letterhead and your care provider includes his or her official credentials. The letter should also be dated less than a year from your travel dates.

2. Do your research
Does your voyage include connecting flights on different airlines? Ensure both allow therapy animals. Ditto for destinations: animals are not allowed on flights to or from Bridgetown, Barbados, for example. Plus, sometimes different rules apply for domestic versus international flights.

3. Check the guidelines
Just because one airline says it’s OK for you to keep your support cat on your lap during the flight doesn’t mean that another airline will—and some airlines will only allow dogs. West Jet, for example, allows support animals but needs at least seven days’ notice on package vacations. Some airlines, meanwhile, require animals to be on harnesses at all times, while others will only allow pets in carriers.

Once you’ve done all the groundwork and have found a route that allows you to travel with your support animal, remember to feed him or her about four hours before you take off—it’s easier on travelling animals not to have a full stomach. Then sit back with your furry friend, relax and enjoy the flight.

Read more: 
Fear and anxiety disorders: The physical symptoms
Body over mind: A new way to treat depression
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Anxiety disorder? Here's how to travel with an emotional support animal

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