Traveling with a Pet or Emotional Support Animal

| This guide is meant to help you navigate the daunting task of traveling with a pet or emotional support animal. However, all opinions expressed are my own and are not intended to be interpreted as professional advice or expert opinion. All opinions are my own and may not be shared by any of the companies mentioned in the following article.

The following tips and tricks are things that have worked well for Penny and I, but please remember all dogs, cities, airports, staff members, and airlines are different. We travel quite frequently for both business and pleasure and always take Penny with us. We usually fly Southwest, but have flown once roundtrip with Penny on American Airlines. She has flown to Texas 4 times, North Carolina 1 time, Indiana 2 times, Nevada (airport) 1 time, and Washington 2 times, for a total of 20 individual flights – what I’m saying is that we’ve done this flying with a dog thing a few times. If you have any questions about the following information, feel free to reach out to me by email at

What is the difference between a pet and an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals are those recommended by a licensed mental healthcare professional to provide a benefit to an individual with a diagnosed mental/emotional disability. They are not required to have specific training or provide a specific task to a disabled person and therefore DO NOT recieve the same rights & access as task-trained Service Dogs.

TIP: If you’re not planning on traveling frequently and you don’t have a mental healthcare professional to write an ESA letter, don’t worry about getting an emotional support animal! Your small dog or cat can fly with you in the cabin on most major airlines! They must remain in their carriers and are subject to pet fees, but you don’t have to do any extra work!

All About Emotional Support Animals

Q: How do I make my dog an emotional support animal?
A: To make your dog an emotional support animal, you’ll need a letter of recommendation from your mental healthcare professional. There is no official registration or training required, but it’s definitely not a good idea to try to bring a badly-behaved or untrained dog on a plane because you’ll both be stressed out. Make sure you’ve practiced a lot with your emotional support animal in busy, stressful situations so you’re both ready for the bustle of the airport. Keep in mind that a stressed out animal won’t be able to offer you very much emotional support.

Q: How do I know if my dog would be a good ESA?
A: If your dog is very friendly, attentive, adaptable, and obedient, they would probably make a good ESA! There’s no training required to be an ESA, but you’ll probably embarrass yourself if you try to pass off a crazy-hyper dog as an ESA in the airport around a ton of strangers! You can still fly with that kind of dog, just safely sedate them and keep them comfortable in a carrier while they fly as a pet! You know yourself and your dog best, so it’s ultimately up to you and what feels the most comfortable! Keep in mind that a stressed-out dog will not provide you much emotional support!

Q: Are there breed restrictions for ESAs?
A: On Southwest Airlines, there are no breed restrictions for Emotional Support Animals, but there are some size restrictions. Southwest airlines does not transport animals in checked cargo. On American Airlines, there are some breed restrictions for ESAs or in-cabin pets and brachycephalic or snub-nosed dogs of any mix are not accepted as checked pets due to the potential for breathing complications in cargo. Be sure to check each airline’s website for more information before each trip.

Q: How much does it cost to fly with an ESA?
A: Flying with an Emotional Support Animal or Service Dog is usually free on most major airlines with proper paperwork. On Southwest, it costs $95 each way for an in-cabin pet. On American, it costs $125 each way for an in-cabin pet and $200 each way for a checked cargo pet.

Q: Is there a size/weight limit on emotional support animals?
A: Most Emotional Support Animals are small dogs, because they can fit in a carrier under the seat in front of you. However, I think your large dog can be an ESA as long as they’re able to sit or lie on the ground at your feet for the duration of the flight. I don’t think there is a weight limit on any airline.

Q: Can I get an ESA letter online? I’ve seen them on Amazon.
A: I would not recommend getting an ESA letter online in any way. I obviously can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re all a scam, but I wouldn’t be willing to gamble my money on what could end up getting rejected at the airport ticket counter anyways. I haven’t tried any of them and don’t plan on doing so!

Q: Are there forms that you need to print out before flying?
A: Other than a printed copy of your ESA letter, it depends on the airline. Some airlines, like American, have animal-related paperwork that you’re required to fill out ahead of time. It’s always best to check on the regulations of the specific airline you are flying, at least a full week before your trip. Give them a call if you have any questions!

Q: Can I take my animal on a trip outside of my home country?
A: This is a complicated question that depends on both your country of origin and your destination because they all have different laws. However, to take your pet out of and/ or into most countries, you’ll need a full medical workup from your pet’s veterinarian. This may include bloodwork, vaccination records, and microchip information. If you live in the United States & want to drive across the border to Canada or Mexico, you pretty much just need the health records. If you’re flying overseas, many countries have a quarantine period for animals that often lasts over two weeks – these are not good places to take your animal unless you’re both relocating there permanently. Before planning your trip, do plenty of research on your destination’s policies.

Q: Does the date my ESA letter was written matter?
A: Yes – your ESA letter must have been written and dated within one calendar year of your flight. Every year, you’ll need to request an updated letter from your mental healthcare provider. Many airlines will not accept an ESA letter if it was written over a year ago.

Packing for Your Pet

Q: What should I pack when traveling with my pet?
A: Think about the things that your pet uses every single day and pack them all! Then pack a few of their favorite toys and a blanket or towel that smells like home! If you’re going somewhere with extreme weather, don’t forget appropriate clothing and accessories for your pet! The exact carrier that Penny always flies with (as well as some of the other stuff in her carry-on) is listed in this post.

Recommended Packing List:

  • Food and treats
  • Food/water bowls
  • A few favorite toys
  • Chews & bones
  • Collar with up-to-date ID tags
  • Harness and leash
  • Pet carrier/bag (if applicable)
  • Familiar-smelling blanket or towel
  • Snow clothes and/or rain gear for inclement weather
  • Potty pads or diapers (optional)
  • Collapsable crate (optional)

Q: What should I pack in my carry-on bag?
A: If you have a pet or ESA, they and their bag count as one of your carry-on bags. I usually always have Penny and my backpack on the plane with me and since Penny goes under the seat in front of me, I have to put my backpack in the overhead bin until we hit cruising altitude. You’ll most likely need to stash a few things in your pet’s carrier for their first few flights, like a bone or chew toy to keep them occupied, a collapsible water bowl, and a potty pad or some paper towels in case they get air sick.

Q: Should I medicate/sedate my pet?
A: For the first few flights, it’s probably a good idea to sedate your pet somehow so they aren’t terrified and miserable the whole time. That being said, different things work for each pet, so please consult your veterinarian for medication advice. Ours suggested childrens’ Benadryl, but we tested it before the flight and she had tons of energy. They then gave us a prescription for Trazodone, which she took for a while, but lately she’s been flying unmedicated as we feel she’s gotten used to the process.

Penny’s ESA Gear

There is no specific gear required for emotional support animals when traveling through the airport, but a collar or tag is recommended. The exact items that Penny wears to travel are pictured to the right. Some people choose to get big ESA vests, but I think these are a bit gratuitous as they can be interpreted as service dog vests. It’s important to remember that an ESA is NOT the same thing as a service dog. Penny is very friendly and seeks out human attention, so people often ask me if it’s okay to pet her – I use this as a chance to educate people about the differences between ESAs & SDs. An ESA should be friendly & approachable, so it’s okay to pet them! A service dog is working and should never be touched or distracted in public, no matter how cute they may be.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This should go without saying, but never put a service dog vest on an emotional support animal or a pet. I’ve heard that it’s against the law and it’s just a rude thing to do. Many people have disabilities that are both visible and non-visible to outsiders and your having a fake service dog puts that handler and their real service dog in serious jeopardy. Just don’t do it!

Before the Trip

Q: Do I need to notify the airline that I’m flying with an animal?
A: YES! If you’re flying with Southwest, you need to go into Flight > Manage Reservations, then look up your flight by the confirmation number and your name, then “Special Assistance” under your name and info > check “traveling with an emotional support animal” and update the reservation. If you’re flying any other major airline, visit their website and search “emotional support animal” on the site. They all have different policies, but all require advance notice. For example, American Airlines requires you to submit several documents online in advance that they will confirm with a phone call. If you forget to notify the airline, don’t panic completely, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cancel your flight. It might just mean your ESA would be subject to pet fees/rules.

Q: What should I feed my pet before the flight?
A: It’s usually a good idea to skip the meal you’d serve your pet in the hours before a flight, just in case they get airsick or to help avoid a need for the bathroom. If our flight is in the morning, Penny will skip her first meal and eat when we get to the destination. If it’s in the evening, she’ll eat her first meal, but then nothing until after we get to the destination.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure you get to the airport at least two hours (an hour and a half at the very minimum) if you’re traveling with an animal, because you have to check in at the airline counter in-person and there can be lines. That means that you can’t check in online and go straight to security as you might have done if you were a frequent flyer before.

In the Airport

Q: What do I need to do when I get to the airport?
A: Go over to the full-service customer service counter for the airline you’re flying. Check in for your flight according to airline procedure and check any luggage you have. If you have an ESA, tell them and give them a copy of the letter from your doctor on their practice’s letterhead with medical license number. If you’re flying with a pet, this is where you’ll pay any fees.

Q: Should my pet walk through the airport?
A: If your dog is too large to fit in a carrier, obviously they’ll have to walk through the airport, so just make sure you give them enough time to go to the bathroom before you head inside. If you have a small pet or ESA in a carrier, it’s probably a good idea to keep them in their safe space. At the very least, it keeps them feeling safe and contained in a crowded airport full of strangers. Keeping them in their carrier also keeps you both from being overwhelmed by travelers asking to pet them. If your dog is super friendly and outgoing like Penny is, you can let usually them out on leash during waiting periods in the airport or layovers to say hi to and get pets from the people that approach you!

Q: How do I go through security with an animal?
A: Whether you’re traveling with a pet, emotional support animal, or service dog, airport security measures are the same. Leave your animal in it’s carrier and do everything that humans are supposed to do, then take out your pet and hold them, sending the carrier on the belt through the x-ray machine. You will then carry your small pet or walk with your large dog through the old-school metal detector machine instead of the newer full-body scanners where you hold your hands up over your head. You’ll then almost always be asked to step aside and hold your hands out, palms up, to be rubbed with a special paper that detects bomb or gun powder residue. I’m not sure why they do this for people with animals, but they usually do! Once the scan clears, you’ll be free to put your pet back in its carrier, collect your things, and go to your gate to wait for boarding.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Make sure you get to the airport at least two hours (an hour and a half at the very minimum) if you’re traveling with an animal, because you have to check in at the airline counter in-person and there can be lines. That means that you can’t check in online and go straight to security as you might have done if you were a frequent flyer before.

Indoor Dog Bathrooms

Q: Where will my animal go to the bathroom once we’re inside the airport?
A: All airports have an area for pets and service animals to relieve themselves. Most airports have a small, contained area outside with fake grass and those poop-bag dispenser/trash can combo things, but some are starting to have animal bathrooms inside! The “toilets” are metal structures with astroturf and water hoses to wash any urine down a drain. You clean up feces with bags as usual. There are sinks to wash your human hands and ventilation systems to help with the smell, but they can still be kind of stinky even when they’re clean, so we usually hold the door open (if there is one) while Penny is in there. We also bring some potty pads and always give her a chance to use them in the terminal before and after each flight. If you have a long flight ahead of you or a very young or elderly pet, a diaper might be a good option while traveling.

During the Flight

Q: Where will my animal sit during the flight?
A: All animals, whether it’s a pet, an ESA, or a service dog, have to remain in your own foot-space. For a small animal, this means sitting in a carrier under the seat in front of you, like Penny is pictured doing below. For a large animal, this means sitting on the floor at your feet or under the seat in front of you, like Biscuit is pictured doing in the service dog section of this blog. Remember that your animal needs goes under the seat, so you’ll have to put your other bag in the overhead bin. I’ve found that on some airlines, I can fit Penny’s carrier under the seat as well as my backpack, if I turn the backpack on it’s side. If you have a large animal that isn’t in a carrier, they’ll have the most space in the bulkhead seats (the very first row of seats on the plane), but you won’t have a seat in front of you, so you have to put all of your things in the overhead bin.

Q: Can I take my animal out of their carrier during the flight?
A: If you’re flying with a pet, no – they have to remain completely enclosed in their carrier for the entire flight. If you have an emotional support animal that’s smaller than the size of a 2 year old child, you can take them out and hold them on your lap during the flight. I don’t usually take Penny out of her carrier because she feels safer in there – she makes this clear to me through her body language. If I take her out of the carrier for any reason, she gets all squirmy and just wants to get back in.

Q: What if my animal has to use the bathroom during the flight?
A: Do everything you can to get your animal to use the restroom before the flight. If you’re on a domestic flight, they should be able to hold it and will rarely go in their carrier, but if you’re worried, you can always put a diaper on them or line their carrier with potty pads. If you have a layover and enough time, take them to the airport’s pet relief area or give them a chance to use a potty pad. If you’re on an international flight or a flight longer than 6+ hours, you’ll likely have to submit forms proving you have a plan for your pet to relieve themselves. For me, that would be Penny’s being pad trained – if we ever end up on an overseas flight, we’d be able to put a pad down on the ground somewhere in the back or in an aisle and she’d know what it was for. Other than a diaper, I’m not sure what other options you’d have, especially if you have a large dog.

Q: What will my animal do during takeoff and/or landing?
A: Takeoff and landing can be the scariest part of flying for both humans and pets. You might need to reach down and comfort your pet or hold your ESA in your lap during these times. It can get bumpy down there on the floor when the plane lands!

Q: What will my animal do during the flight?
A: Don’t be surprised if your pet doesn’t curl up and go to sleep. There’s a lot of noise on airplanes, plus all the things we humans can’t even hear, so your pet will probably just kind of sit there or lie in their carrier, relaxed but awake, especially if they’ve been medicated. Silver lining: the noise does help cover up anxious whining! Just reach down and pet them for comfort!

Q: What if my animal gets airsick on the plane?
A: It’s always a good idea to keep a potty pad stashed away in your pet’s travel carrier just in case there’s turbulence and they happen to get sick, especially on their very first flight!

Traveling in the Car

Q: Where should my pet sit when we’re in the car?
A: No matter the distance of the car ride or the size of your pet, there’s a way to keep them safe. Even just a quick slam on the brakes can send your beloved pet flying into the windshield if they’re not wearing a seatbelt of some kind. For cats or small dogs like Penny, a car seat is the best option! It will elevate your pet in the car so they can see out the window, while keeping them safe and secure in case you have to slam on the brakes. All pet carseats have a nylon strap that attaches to your pet’s harness with a clip or carabiner to keep them safely in the seat during an emergency stop. If you have a larger dog that can sit in the regular human car seat, you can get a special seat belt that clips to their harness and secures them through the human seat belt. With either option, you’ll want to harness your pet instead of clipping them in by their collar – just think if human seat belts went around the neck, YIKES! If you don’t have a seat belt or car seat with you, the floorboard area is usually the safest place for pets to sit. If they’re sitting in any of the seats, be super careful when braking!

I usually hold Penny on my lap if I’m the passenger in the car, but if I’m driving alone, she sits in her Kurgo SkyBox car seat! If you’re going on a roadtrip, a special carseat or booster seat is definitely the safest option for your small dog. However, if you’re flying somewhere and then going on a roadtrip, you might consider something more packable like these doggy seat belts! These work great for large dogs sitting in the back seat too!

Other Travel Questions

Q: Can I take my animal in a ride-share, like Uber or Lyft?
A: Task-trained service dogs are always allowed in any ride-share car you call, no matter their size. A driver cannot deny your service animal for any reason. With pets, most drivers don’t mind if you bring a small dog in their car. I’ve had a couple drivers pull up, see Penny, and cancel the ride, but that’s rare. If she’s in her travel bag, I’ll sit the whole thing in the seat next to me, but if not, I always keep her on my lap so she doesn’t shed on their car seats. She sheds the most when she shakes her whole body, so I’ll put my hand on her back to stop her from shaking if we’re in a car, just to be considerate! I’m pretty sure you can bring cats as long as they’re in a carrier, but I read that if you have a large dog, you should call an UberXL or hire another large car. If your dog isn’t huge, but still too big for your lap, consider bringing a blanket or towel to cover the seat!

Q: Can I bring my animal on public transportation, like trains?
A: Task-trained service dogs are always allowed on all public transportation options (buses, trains, etc.) in pretty much all cities around the world. For ESAs and pets, I feel like it definitely depends on the city you’re in. Some places’ public transportation options are okay with passengers bringing small pets in enclosed carriers, but I can’t speak for any one place in particular.

Q: What kinds of things can I do with my dog when we travel?
A: Pretty much anything outside is a great activity to do with your animal when you reach your destination. Even if a city isn’t super dog-friendly, most outdoor spaces still are. Look up local parks, hiking trails, scenic overlooks, public gardens, dog parks, waterfront walkways, etc. in the city you’re going to. If you stay somewhere that’s walkable, don’t underestimate the awesomeness of just exploring the city on foot with your pet. Just be sure to keep your dog leashed at all times and clean up after them, no matter where you go! If you’re in a dog-friendly city, don’t forget to look up any local dog boutiques and/or regional pet stores in the area because they’ll always allow leashed pets, so you can always explore any of those!

Staying in a Hotel with an Animal

Q: Does it cost extra to stay at a hotel with an animal?
A: This one all depends on the hotel. Almost all pet-friendly hotels will charge you a pet fee, usually for a deeper room cleaning after you leave (see bathroom question). I don’t think service dogs are ever required to pay this fee and some hotels will waive it for ESA dogs. Even the same hotel chain can vary by location on their pet policies, so be sure to call the exact hotel you’re staying at in advance to double check. Some hotels may have size/weight or breed restrictions, so keep that in mind. If your animal damages the room in any way, you’ll be charged an additional fee. Even if the hotel you’re staying at does not allow pets, your service dog is still allowed to stay with you. Emotional Support Animals DO NOT qualify for this privilege. Service animals may not be left unattended in your hotel room.

Q: Can I leave my pet alone in the hotel room?
A: Yes! If you’re staying at a pet-friendly hotel and plan to leave your animal alone in the room, it’s probably a good idea to bring a crate. This way, your pet can feel safe as you go out and explore, while you have the peace of mind knowing they aren’t trashing the hotel room. If traveling with a kennel/crate (even the folding kind) seems too daunting a task for you, consider purchasing an inexpensive one at your destination and donating it to the local animal shelter before you head back home! A lot of pet-friendly hotels will have special hangtags or magnets for the door that notify staff of an unattended pet in the room. To make it easier for yourself and the hotel staff, it’s probably best to also put up the “do not disturb” sign when your pet is left alone in the room, especially if they get nervous around strangers.

Q: Where will my animal use the bathroom at the hotel?
A: All pet-friendly hotels will have a designated grassy area on the property for your pets to relieve themselves. They’ll usually have extra poop bags, but you should always carry your own. If your dog is pad-trained like Penny, you can make a lot fewer trips outside! Most pet-friendly hotels have a block of rooms that they reserve for guests traveling with animals. These rooms are usually closer to the outside exit doors so you can quickly take your pet out to go potty. However, since other pets have stayed in the room before, don’t be surprised if your dog makes a big point to sniff around the whole room before marking in a certain spot. Sometimes even the best-trained dogs can’t resist the urge to mark where another dog has been. Do your best to soak up the urine with toilet paper and try to put something on that spot, like a bit of soapy water, for the smell.

Traveling with a Task-Trained Service Dog

The following section was written by Laura Beckwith of @biscuit.and.creme

Q: How do you register your dog as a service animal?
A: In the United States, there is no service dog registry. Any service dog registry you may find online that claims to be an official registry is a lie. Service dogs are prescribed by a doctor for an individual who is disabled, so that the individual would having greatly improved quality of life or life-saving results from tasks provided by a service animal.

Q: What training is required for a service dog?
A: Service dogs need to go through very extensive training in three basic areas of skill: manners, obedience in the form of public access skills (an example of what this should look like is the Canine Good Citizen Urban test), and specialized task training (things to help the handler), which generally takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months.

Q: Can any size dog be a service dog or emotional support animal?
A: Yes! Any size dog or breed can be an ESA or Service Dog. Some breeds are used more often for Service Dog work due to their temperaments and drive, but any dog with the willingness to work that is also in-tune with their handler’s needs can be a service dog if they are able to make it through the proper training requirements.

Q: Can you talk about the difference between a service dog and an emotional support animal or pet, especially as it relates to their training and behavior in public?
A: Service dogs going through extensive training, should be able to ignore the food on the ground, the cooing of humans, loud unexpected noises, unusual situations such as moving walkways, loud machines, flashing lights and sirens. A service dog is not only an exceedingly well behaved and well trained dog, but they are also someone’s medical life-saving device. It is a felony to distract a service dog. That includes the kissy noises and coos, it’s illegal, don’t do it! Just because a service dog can ignore you, doesn’t mean they should be put in the situation to be distracted by humans. Be respectful of the working dogs you see. Many people think when they see Biscuit, “oh he’s just napping during a meal” when in reality, the times I need him the most focused throughout the day, are when I am eating. Biscuit has never missed an oncoming allergic reaction alert – I have accidentally ignored him before, and when I have, I spend multiple days unable to do much of anything, in horrible pain with aftermath effects. If someone was distracting him and he missed an alert, I would have nearly a week of being out of commission because of that. You never know what a service dog’s exact tasks are, so always practice ignoring them. We know they’re cute, but they have life saving work to do!

Q: What documents do you need to carry when traveling?
A: The biggest “documentation” or proof of a service dog that one carries, as cheesy as it sounds, is their mannerism and professionalism. A service dog shouldn’t sniff at things as it passes, never should use the bathroom in a store, should be in tune with their handler, ignore other dogs or distractions, stay in a heel (how tight or loose that is is up to the description of the handler). A service dog should always be able to perform a task response on command if need be and should be able to complete the task without distraction. Keep in mind, every dog has bad days – that doesn’t mean they aren’t a real working dog. If your service dog came from a center, you also likely have a patch from that center. I always keep our vaccination records, rabies certificate, my doctors note and our training certificates with us when we travel, as well as a section in my phone with all his records should anything ever happen to the papers.

Q: How do large dogs sit in the cabin on the plane?
A: In order to travel on a plane, Biscuit is required to stay within my leg room on the flight or I need to purchase a second seat for him. Generally, I have had airlines move me to an empty row if they see one to allow him some extra room. I always try to get the bulkhead seats which have the most space for him. When Biscuit and I fly, I bring a mat for him to “place” which is one of his commands that he needs to stay on that spot until I release him, and then he just sleeps the whole flight unless he needs to alert me. I have seen other Service Dog handlers just have their dog “tuck” into their foot space where they curl into a ball.

Q: What items do you need to bring when traveling with a service dog?
A: Things that we typically travel with: Biscuit’s Service Dog Vest or Harness, his shoes/boots (for extreme weather), poop bags, 2-3 collapsible bowls & a metal bowl space permitting, hand sanitizer & wet wipes (specifically due to my allergies, but have come in handy other times!) I always bring at least two meals for him in my carry on in case anything should happen to my luggage, my medications, high value treats, a Eurolead/hands-free leash, Biscuit’s “place” mat, his vaccination records, a tag with updated phone numbers or location where we are staying should he get lost, and a medical ID card for me (I use the one my iPhone).

Q: What has been your experience flying with different airlines with a service dog?
A: I have honestly had very good experiences flying with United Airlines and Delta. With United, the one issue I will say that I have had endless problems with United Airlines is their check in staff does not always know the different between a Service Dog and an ESA. Due to this I have bad conflicting information given to me to be told I was correct. When I have addressed this with their customer service, I was given a sincere apology and an award credit towards my next flight. Delta had phenomenal legroom in the last flight I took with them, my first time flying with them with Biscuit. United I feel has the most consistent planes which is my preference as I am able to predict which seats work best for us with the space. Delta was very unpredictable and we also were delayed for +10 hours which was not ideal as I had to eat 3 meals in the airport, a food allergy person’s hell. I should note that despite all the issues Delta had with weather, they still put me in the same seat I had since they knew I had Biscuit and needed more room, this earned them brownie points with us.

Q: What is it like staying in a hotel with a service dog, specifically one that doesn’t allow pets?
A: When a hotel is not a dog friendly one, I make sure to ask where the best place for us to have him use the restroom would be, some hotels have had specific “service dog relief” areas, most don’t care where he goes. If they have a specific location, I always try to be respectful of that and have him go there. I also ask if there are any other service dogs staying and if they are located in our wing. Finally, I ask if they would like him to be vested at all times – often I stay in dog friendly hotels anyways, so I do not always have him vested at 11pm when we go out to use the bathroom. Also in any hotel, I always do my best to remove as much of Biscuit’s hair as possible, in order to minimize potential allergens for others.