These Unusual Therapy Animals Lighten the Mood at U.S. Airports

LiLou the pig is part of the Wag Brigade at . San Francisco International Airport

The trend of airport therapy animals started not long after Sept. 11, 2001, when an airport chaplain at San Jose's Mineta International brought her pet dog to the terminal to help travelers relax before their flights. As the number of people flying has increased in the years since, so have the number of airports that have adopted therapy animals. These days, you'll find more than dogs inside the terminal. Some very unexpected creatures are also providing stress relief and distraction.

More ways to relax before your flight

Airports are stressful places. Baggage limits and security checkpoint wait times can increase your blood pressure before you even get to the gate.

In recent years, airport operators have taken steps to take the edge off. Hubs are investing in better restaurants, meditation rooms, yoga studios, and even services like massages and haircuts. While not universal, free Wi-Fi is common, and some airports have public tablets that passengers can use to order food, get information or read the news. These newer options certainly beat the coin-operated televisions and newsstands from decades past.

Even with these modern upgrades, the number of airport therapy animal programs is increasing.

Therapy dogs ... and other creatures

As you might expect, most airport animal therapy volunteers are dogs. Major airports like San Francisco International (SFO), Denver International, Minneapolis Saint Paul International, Los Angeles International and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International have ongoing therapy dog programs. Other hubs bring animals in to take the edge off during peak travel times.

Some of these programs have diversified. San Francisco International's Wag Brigade features dogs, cats, rabbits and, since 2016, a pig named LiLou. LiLou, pictured at the top of this file, might seem like an unexpected member of SFO's therapy staff, but she is, in fact, a licensed therapy animal. Meanwhile, at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, for a while, passengers heard neighs instead of barks. A team of miniature horses used to appear in the ticketing area. Like the dogs (and pig), the horses were therapy animals that don't get spooked by all the attention they get or by the bustling atmosphere inside the airport.

Alligators at baggage claim

Airport visitors in New Orleans pet an alligator courtesy of representatives from the Audubon Nature Institute.
Airport visitors in New Orleans pet an alligator courtesy of representatives from the . Audubon Nature Institute

You might be surprised to see pigs and horses in airports, but probably not as surprised as you would be if you came across an alligator at baggage claim. That's exactly what could happen at Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans. Alligators may not seem like the best stress relievers, but the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the alligator program at Armstrong, has handlers who help passengers interact with the reptiles. You may even have an opportunity to take a picture with a baby gator. The gators aren't licensed therapy animals, but they are used to being handled. (Staff do the handling, though they may allow passengers to touch the gators).

The New Orleans program is focused on education. In addition to the alligator interactions, the program provides information about the reptiles and other inhabitants of Louisiana's wetlands.

What about bringing your own support animal?

What if you need more than a quick petting session before your flight? Bringing your own therapy animal is a relatively common practice at commercial airports, though airlines are starting to increase the number of rules concerning emotional support animals. Animals that are too young or of a certain species are not allowed, and support animals may be banned on transcontinental flights. United Airlines, meanwhile, recently turned away a very unusual emotional support animal, a peacock, because it didn't meet size restrictions. Airlines that allow service dogs and other emotional support animals require you to fill out documentation before you fly.

How to become an airport therapy animal handler

Therapy dogs at SFO
Therapy dogs lighten travelers' moods as San Francisco International. Jason Sullivan/Getty Images

Airports probably won't accept a volunteer request from an alligator owner, but you may be able to volunteer if you work with therapy dogs. Most airport therapy animal programs aren't short of volunteers, but they do provide information for people who want to join with their animal. Some, such as Denver International's Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS), require previous experience in therapy for both dog and owner. Denver and other airports often require that animals be registered (or get registered) with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Handlers will also need a background check for security reasons.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects a huge increase in the number of airline travelers over the next two decades. Airports may get even busier and more chaotic. Judging from the number of airports that have launched therapy animal programs over the last two decades, there is a demand, and that demand may rise in the coming years as the skies get more crowded.