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Perceptions of Service Animals – Exploring How People Feel [Survey]

Alex Miller's image
Alex Miller
Alex Miller's image

Alex Miller

Founder & CEO

Countries Visited: 34U.S. States Visited: 29

Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, Alex is a leader in the industry and has earned and redeemed millions of points and miles. He frequently discusses the award travel industry with CNBC, Fox Business...
Edited by: Kellie Jez
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Kellie Jez

Director of Operations & Compliance

Countries Visited: 10U.S. States Visited: 20

Kellie’s professional experience has led her to a deep passion for compliance, data reporting, and process improvement. Kellie’s learned the ins and outs of the points and miles world and leads UP’s c...

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From airplane cabins to college campuses, emotional support animals are an increasingly common sight. But the growing presence of these pets has hardly gone unnoticed: Some critics question their legitimacy, while businesses face tough decisions about accommodating all kinds of animals.

Additionally, the ubiquity of emotional support pets can sometimes cause confusion, with people failing to distinguish between them and trained service animals. In their travels and daily lives, Americans view emotional support and service animals with vastly different perspectives – and have plenty of strong opinions.

To study these issues in greater detail, we surveyed approximately 1,000 individuals, including hundreds of people with service dogs and emotional support animals. We analyzed their attitudes about animals in various settings, exploring potential concerns and frustrations. To learn what people really think about animal companions across a range of contexts, keep reading.

Service and Support

what's the difference between service dog and emotional support animal

In many contexts, federal law mandates the accommodation of service and emotional support animals: Airlines, for example, are legally bound to allow both on board. Yet, these two categories of animals differ in many respects. Service dogs are specifically trained to assist their owners in some capacity, usually compensating for a disability or medical condition. Among respondents with service dogs, many reported that their canine companions helped them cope with PTSD, mobility issues, or sensory challenges, such as blindness.

Why people need service animals

Conversely, emotional support animals need no specific training; their presence alone helps comfort their owners. Typically, emotional support animals are intended to aid people with diagnosed mental health challenges. Of respondents who had them, 91% said their pets helped them with anxiety, while over 72% said their animals helped with depression.

Price and Types

Top breeds of service dogs

Cost represents another key distinction between service dogs and emotional support animals. Respondents with service dogs paid roughly $2,400, on average, for them, although this price likely represents just a fraction of total training costs. In many cases, nonprofit training organizations assume tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for each service dog they produce. Still, approximately a quarter of service dog owners needed help from friends or family to afford their animals, attesting to the value of these canine companions.

Conversely, people with emotional support pets spent just $77, on average, to get their animals registered as such. This figure is strikingly affordable, given that certification entails the services of a mental health professional. And while the low cost of certification may aid those in need, some fear it serves to incentivize false claims.

Airlines, for example, typically charge $125 to transport a pet on a one-way journey. Compared to paying that price, getting one’s pet certified can seem like a real bargain. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that 26% of respondents with pets wanted to get their animals registered – either for emotional reasons or financial ones.

Skepticism and Setting

Service animals in publicShould service dogs and emotional support animals be accommodated equally? On this question, respondents were notably divided: While over 53% felt they should be dealt with equally, nearly 47% disagreed. It’s possible those who disagreed reject the value of emotional support animals altogether. Yet, their sentiments may also stem from fears about malfeasance. If we accord emotional support animals the same respect as service dogs, will pets appear in all kinds of inappropriate places?

Generally speaking, respondents were far more willing to accommodate service animals in public settings. By contrast, 49% felt emotional support animals were inappropriate in restaurants, while 35% felt they did not belong in grocery stores. These findings could reflect concerns about behavior: Because emotional support animals are not necessarily trained for various settings, they could certainly misbehave in the presence of food.

Some people expressed sanitary concerns regardless of training: More than a third of respondents felt either kind of animal would be unsanitary in a restaurant, and nearly 52% said a restaurant would be the worst place to take them. And, according to some in the restaurant industry, the presence of service animals can put establishments in confusing legal territory. While local health codes may prohibit animals, federal laws demand accommodations for those with disabilities. What should a restaurant owner do then?

Yet, according to many experts, scientific support for the efficacy of emotional support animals remains limited. A related sense of skepticism emerged among our respondents: Most believed pet owners abuse service animal policies. These findings raise difficult questions regarding who should be believed. Of those who claim a need for emotional support, how many are truly relying on their animals?

Frustrations and Complications

Traveling with service animals

Service and emotional support animals are often discussed in the context of travel, and passengers were most likely to be annoyed by their presence on planes. Respondents readily shared tales of poorly behaved pooches on planes and cats causing allergic reactions in airports. In light of these experiences, airlines and transportation officials have sought to regulate emotional support animals more aggressively, especially as they become more common on American flights.

Planes and Pets

Indeed, more than 1 in 10 respondents had observed an issue with a pet during air travel, and most could imagine potential challenges. A majority worried about passengers being allergic to the pet in question, or the animal needing to use the bathroom on board. Moreover, scientists assert that animals can suffer when subjected to air travel, which can be overstimulating and frightening. Perhaps for these reasons, most people with service dogs had not flown with them. Likewise, just 1 in 11 respondents had flown with an emotional support animal.

Still, respondents were largely in favor of animals being allowed on board for legitimate reasons. Almost 79% said animals should be allowed in the cabin of the plane, although support differed significantly by species. Eighty-eight percent said dogs were acceptable in the cabin, while 54% approved of cats. At the other end of the spectrum, just 4% thought peacocks were appropriate. One such exotic bird found itself at the center of a snafu in 2018 when United Airlines barred it from a flight departing New Jersey.

Emphasizing Empathy

Our findings present a mix of strong sentiments, illuminating the complexity of the debate regarding accommodations involving animals. The majority of respondents supported allowing animals on planes, for example, yet most also believed that pet owners abuse well-intentioned policies. Similarly, our results indicate many important reasons that people use animals for service and emotional support. But by the same token, our findings reveal legitimate objections to animals’ presence, such as serious allergies.

There’s no perfect way to resolve these conflicting preferences in public settings. But the least we can do is suspend our assumptions and take the time to consider others. So before rolling your eyes at the next support animal you see, consider the good that pet might be doing. And if you’re tempted to sneak an animal on board by illegitimate means, think of the other passengers who might suffer due to your duplicity.

At Upgraded Points, we help everyone make the most of their credit card spending, with a ton of tips for maximizing travel benefits. With our advice, you’ll earn enough cash-back to bring your favorite animal along – or pay for a pet sitter. Check out our guides today to see how we can help.

Methodology and Limitations

To collect the data shown above, we surveyed 992 respondents. Of the respondents, 282 had a service dog, 133 had an emotional support animal, and 577 had neither. Of the 577 respondents without a service dog or emotional support animal, 400 owned a dog. The respondent pool was 61.3% female, 38.2% male, and less than 1% choosing another option.

The data were calculated to exclude outliers. We did this by finding initial averages and standard deviations for the data. Then, the standard deviation was multiplied by two and added to the initial average. Any data point above the calculated number was then excluded from the data. Because the survey relies on self-reporting, issues such as telescoping and exaggeration can influence responses. An attention-check question was included in the survey to help make sure respondents did not randomly answer.

Fair Use Statement

From emotional support skeptics to unscrupulous pet owners, plenty of people might be interested in this project. Accordingly, feel free to share our work widely. If you do, please link back to this page to attribute our team properly. We also ask that you use our information and images for noncommercial purposes only.

Alex Miller's image

About Alex Miller

Founder and CEO of Upgraded Points, Alex is a leader in the industry and has earned and redeemed millions of points and miles. He frequently discusses the award travel industry with CNBC, Fox Business, The New York Times, and more.


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