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What To Know Before Flying With A Therapy Or Support Animal

Even with all the correct paperwork, a "comfort turkey" or "emotional support peacock" can be turned away.

Some airlines are tightening restrictions on emotional support animals — but what does that actually mean for people who need to travel with these animal companions?

On Saturday, an “emotional support” peacock was barred from boarding a cross-country flight out of New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport.

Though the peacock, whose name is Dexter, had his own ticket, a spokesperson for United Airlines confirmed in a statement provided to The Dodo that he did not meet its guidelines for a number of reasons, including “weight and size.” “We explained this to the customer on three separate occasions before they arrived at the airport,” United added.

Dexter the peacock had his own take on the story. “Spent 6 hours trying to get on my flight to LA (after following all required protocol),” read the caption for a photo posted to Dexter’s Instagram account. “Tomorrow my human friends are going to drive me cross country!”

While to many following the story on social media, it seemed preposterous that a peacock would be allowed to fly cage-free in a plane’s cabin, Dexter does fall into a gray area when it comes to the types of emotional support animals allowed on airplanes.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), which protects passengers with disabilities against discrimination by commercial airlines, any service animals trained to help a person with a disability, “or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support,” should be allowed to accompany their owners on a flight, the Department of Transportation notes.

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Animals that airlines are not required to accommodate, according to the ACAA, include snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders and spiders (all of which passengers have attempted to bring on flights, noted Delta).

So, what about peacocks?

While dogs and cats make up the majority of emotional support animals, exotic therapy pets, such as skunks, turkeys, kangaroos and potbellied pigs have flown on airlines before. In many of these cases, it is up to the discretion of the airline whether or not to allow an unusual therapy animal 39,000 feet in the air.

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To be sure that your emotional support animal can join you on your flight, follow these protocols before heading to the airport:

Check your airline’s online guidelines

To save yourself a lot of hassle and get through security smoothly, be sure to look up the airline’s guidelines for emotional support animals before booking your ticket.

Policies may differ depending on the commercial airline you choose, so it’s best to be prepared. For example, JetBlue specifies that “unusual animals” will not be allowed on flights, and that “birds that do not have their wings ‘clipped or pinioned’ may also be refused carriage.”

While Delta does not directly state the types of animals allowed on its flights, the airline is tightening its restrictions as of March 1, requiring that owners of emotional support animals submit a veterinary health form showing up-to-date vaccinations, documents from a mental health professional and confirmation of animal training at least 48 hours in advance of a flight.

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United requires customers traveling with emotional support animals to provide documentation from a medical professional and at least 48 hours' advance notice, though according to a statement the airline is “reviewing [its] existing policy and plan[s] to share more soon.” Emotional support animals such as miniature horses, pigs and monkeys are evaluated by airlines on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with the Department of Transportation’s guidelines.

Call the airline 48 hours in advance

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Whether you are required to submit paperwork before your travels or just have it on hand for staff to review, giving your airline advance notice of your travel plans is always a good idea.

The size and weight of the animal, and whether the animal’s release into a plane’s cabin would pose a “direct health and safety risk” to crew and passengers, are all reasons an airline can refuse your therapy animal boarding, or place him in the cargo hold. It's best to find out requirements for your animal to travel in the cabin — in a blanket, crate or in his own seat — ahead of time to save yourself a difficult or time-consuming process at the gate.

Bring up-to-date paperwork to the airport

Most airlines will require paperwork from a licensed mental health professional stating that you have a diagnosed mental or emotional disability, and that you need your emotional support or psychiatric support animal during air travel. Before you pack, make sure your paperwork has been updated within one year of your scheduled flight.

While it may not be required, it doesn’t hurt to bring up-to-date veterinary paperwork for your therapy animal as well.

Bon voyage!