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CNA Explains: What are emotional support animals and how do you get one?

From Apr 1 next year, Singapore Airlines passengers can no longer bring an emotional support dog on board flights. What is an emotional support animal and who can get one?

CNA Explains: What are emotional support animals and how do you get one?

File photo of dog with owner. (Photo: iStock/BbenPhotographer)

SINGAPORE: Emotional support dogs are in the spotlight after a picture of two corgis travelling on Singapore Airlines' (SIA) business class went viral last month.

The dogs were allowed in the cabin after their owners showed emotional support animal documentation. 

But from Apr 1 next year, SIA passengers will no longer be able to travel with their emotional support dogs on board flights, the airline's website showed on Monday (Dec 12).

Its policy on assistance dogs remains unchanged. Assistance dogs are trained to perform tasks to assist disabled people, while emotional support dogs are companion dogs that "alleviate psychological disabilities", the airline said.

CNA looks at what emotional support animals are and how they help.


In Singapore, emotional support dogs are not recognised as assistance dogs. 

According to the Animal and Veterinary Service's (AVS) website, emotional support animals that do not have the required training by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) will not qualify as assistance dogs. 

According to the American Kennel Club, an emotional support animal needs to be prescribed by a mental health professional.

"A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give them a focus in life," it added.

A service or assistance animal is trained to assist a person with a disability, while emotional support animals are pets that provide “emotional support and comfort”, said the club.

"The presence of a loving animal can provide comfort and emotional support to individuals," said Pawsibility, a counselling practice in Singapore.


Pawsibility, which includes the option of a therapy dog in sessions, told CNA that such animals can help clients feel "less anxious, more relaxed" and it may help them feel safer talking about challenging issues.

"Research shows that patting a friendly therapy dog for 15 minutes can reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety – for example, lower heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormone cortisol – and increase the presence of happy hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins," it said.

When travelling, animals can help a person with a mental health condition by lowering anxiety symptoms, keeping them focused in the present moment instead of "ruminating about negative thoughts and worries", and providing companionship, said Pawsibility. 

A study published in the journal PLOS ONE in June showed that dog-assisted interventions lowered children’s stress levels.

The study involved 149 neurotypical and non-neurotypical eight and nine-year-olds in Britain, who were sorted into three groups.

In one group, children spent 20 minutes twice a week, over the course of a month, with a trained dog and its handler. They would pet the dog for a few minutes if the dog and children were up for it, ask some questions and play. 

In another group, children worked on relaxation exercises over the same time frame without any dogs around, while a third group served as a control.

The study found that children in the dog-intervention group had lower cortisol levels than their peers in the other two groups.

Health psychologist Dr Jessy Warner-Cohen at Long Island Jewish Medical Center said in an interview with Healthline that for someone with depression, having a support animal can give the person hope and a sense of purpose. 


In Singapore, emotional support dogs must undergo the required training by a member organisation of the Assistance Dogs International or International Guide Dog Federation to qualify as assistance dogs.

Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of non-profit programmes that train and place assistance dogs, according to its website. The International Guide Dog Federation also has an accreditation and assessment process.

In some other countries, an emotional support animal must come with the appropriate documents.

In the US, the only legitimate way to have an emotional support animal is to obtain a recommendation letter from a licensed healthcare professional.

According to ESA Doctors, a US-based organisation that helps people get documentation for their emotional support dogs, a person must have "a mental or emotional health disability that substantially limits a major life activity like work, sleep, or socialising".

The organisation said the common conditions that emotional support animals help with are depression, anxiety, phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

With an emotional support letter, animals may be exempt from some no-pet policies, including size and breed restrictions, said ESA Doctors.


An SIA spokesperson told CNA on Monday that customers departing from Singapore may still travel with their emotional support dogs after Apr 1 if they submit a request before this cut-off date.

People travelling on SIA who want to bring their emotional support dog will need to have the relevant import and export permits. They should have a transhipment licence, if the passengers are transiting through Singapore.

Their owners should also have a veterinary health certificate and a rabies vaccination letter.

They also need a signed statement from a licensed mental health professional that is no older than one year prior to the flight date.

The letter should state that the passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and is under professional care.

It should also say that an emotional support dog is needed for air travel or activities at the passenger's destination, and the licence information of the licensed mental health professional. Passengers should also have a completed acknowledgement form.

To fly with an emotional support dog, the dog must be at least four months old, be trained to obey commands, behave appropriately, and must not pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other customers, said SIA.

Smaller dogs – no larger than the size of a two-year-old child – may sit on the passenger's lap while larger dogs must sit on the cabin floor in front of the passenger seat. A moisture absorbent material must also be placed on the cabin floor underneath the dog at all times.

Dogs must not occupy a seat, must be leashed or kept in a pet carrier, and must not obstruct other passengers' legroom or block the aisle and emergency exits. A muzzle is not necessary unless the dog is of a restricted breed, said SIA.

Restricted breeds include bull terriers, German shepherds, mastiffs, pit bulls and rottweilers. 

SIA said it is unable to accept emotional support dogs to travel in the cabins when travelling to or from some destinations, including into Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom and out of Bali, Brunei or San Francisco, among others. This is due to specific destination import and export regulations. The full list can be found here.

Source: CNA/at(mi)


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