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Yes, your pet is cute, but that doesn't qualify him to fly

Posted at 4:30 AM, Feb 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-22 09:20:24-05

HEBRON, Ky. -- Jessie, a Blue Heeler Mix with a feather-duster tail and a short, upturned snout, can happily ride alongside her owner on most flights departing from Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport. 

It's a privilege for which she's been trained and certified as a service animal by a doctor at the Veterans Affairs Hospital.

However, if she were to hop into a seat alongside her owner, Nicolaas Koppert, Jessie might be flying the furry skies with animals who haven't received her extensive etiquette training. In the information age, any owner who can't bear to leave their pet behind can find "emotional support animal" certification a Google search and a PayPal link away.

"Could you imagine being on an airplane flying and you have an animal up there that misbehaves?" Mockbee said. "Up in the air, there's not much they can do about it."

Airlines do have some room to deny especially unusual, aggressive or large animals, including the "emotional support peacock" that made national news in early February. Some, such as United and Delta, have tightened restrictions to require documentation verifying the animal is necessary for the owner's well-being and trained to behave well in public settings.

However, that documentation is easy to come by. Matthew Smith, a reporter at WCPO's sister station in Detroit, was able to obtain one form of certification by filling out an online form and dipping into his bank account.

"I told them I was stressed out because I had the flu -- I was -- and after an $88 fee, my 100 percent real emotional service animal letter was in my inbox," he said. 

Without ever meeting Smith, Wisconsin-based doctor Lori Gebhart wrote that she had "evaluated (him) for mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" and prescribed him an emotional support animal whose presence "is necessary for (his) emotional health."

The consequences of deception are greater than potentially disrupted flights. An "emotional support" dog attacked another passenger on a Delta flight in June 2017, requiring him to receive 28 facial stitches. Some disability advocates also worry that badly behaved animals could lead to schools, businesses and airlines enacting increasingly restrictive policies that prevent even necessary companions from traveling with their owners.

Jessie the service dog will be OK regardless, Mockbee said. She's got her papers in order and her training up to date.

For owners of pets who haven't received special training and authentic certification, however, it might be time to press paws and think about how badly you need your fluffy friend at your side when you leave your home -- and who could be hurt if you decide to fake it.