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Delta Is Banning Therapy Dogs From Flights, But Science Says We Need Them

The airline’s new policy change will force anxious travelers to leave their emotional support animals at home, and research shows that might be a bad idea.

CHRISsadowski/ Getty Images
CHRISsadowski/ Getty Images

This week, Delta announced that the international airline is updating its service and support animal policy —  banning animals under four months of age, and all emotional support animals on flights longer than eight hours.

The change follows various onboard incidents in recent years, including a passenger who took legal action in 2017 after being attacked by an emotional support dog on a flight.  The new policy will go into effect beginning next week, which means that anxious travellers who are flying anywhere more than eight hours away for the holidays will need to leave their comforting pets at home.

“These updates support Delta’s commitment to safety,” John Laughter, Delta’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Safety, Security and Compliance, said in a statement. “We will continue to review and enhance our policies and procedures as health and safety are core values at Delta.”

Of course, as Delta notes, reducing the amount of pets on board will also reduce the repercussions that can come from having animals on a flight (the company’s announcement states there has been an 84 percent increase in reported incidents on flights). But there is science behind the therapeutic benefit these pets offer to those travelling with anxiety. And overlooking that research can be harmful and unfair for passengers who actually do need the emotional support.

Several studies have shown that pets help owners manage feelings of stress and anxiety. In tense, overwhelming situations, therapy dogs can offer a calming distraction. According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), the science behind the human-animal interaction comes down to changes in physiological variables in both parties. The therapeutic impacts of “companion animals” directly correlate to our physical bodies, triggering lower blood pressure, a slower heart rate, and the release of hormones correlated with well-being.

A 2018 study published in BMC Psychiatry researched veterans living with PTSD, measuring improvements in their mental health while they were living with a service animal. The researchers saw significantly lower levels of depression and higher levels of psychological well-being in the veterans with support pets. Another study from the University of British Columbia found that therapy dogs effectively relieve the stress of college students on campuses.

While there are other techniques and coping mechanisms for nervous travelers, finding something that works for you when you’re feeling anxious is important — and new policies that take one of these tools away can be nerve-wracking for those who require the support. Although Delta wants to prevent future incidents, taking away a form of therapy to an anxious traveler might not be the best answer.

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