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Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, Pets, and the Law

Bradley Robbins is a tech, trade, and travel writer with a lifetime of experience with North America, Europe, and Japan.

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There has been a lot of confusion lately over the status of service animals and the law. With recent actions such as misunderstandings of H.R. 620, enabling the additional spread of misinformation on the topic and incidents of pets attacking service animals and owners, it’s become more important than ever to understand the distinction. Only one type of support animal is protected under federal law, and the law protects the rights of the owner, not the animal.

This law is the Americans with Disabilities Act. While accommodations for services such as air transit and housing may exist under other laws, the ADA governs almost all instances of service-animal distinction. Understanding what this means is vital if you have a service dog or rely on the assistance of an emotional support animal.

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Service Animals Under the ADA

Service animals are dogs—and in recent updates miniature horses—specifically trained to assist people with recognized disabilities under the law. This includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • blood-sugar sensing dogs
  • hearing-assistance dogs
  • seizure-response dogs
  • visual-assistance dogs

Service dogs for those with psychiatric disabilities, including PTSD and other mental health concerns considered disabilities under the ADA, are also included. Protections include the right to enter all areas where public access is normally allowed.

Where Can You Bring Service Dogs?

  • grocery stores and restaurants (state sanitary laws may otherwise prohibit animals)
  • hospitals
  • waiting rooms
  • businesses or government buildings (where visitors or shoppers are allowed)

Where Can't You Bring Service Dogs?

Service dogs are not permitted in operating rooms (where sterile environments would otherwise limit guests) or areas otherwise deemed off-limits to site visitors (such as private quarters or employee bathrooms).

Who Can Have a Service Animal?

Only persons with qualifying disabilities may claim protection for the service animal under the law. This excludes family members, friends, and even trainers of disability animals, though many businesses make exceptions for the latter. Remember that the service dog is allowed access only so that the person with a disability may benefit from that access, not for its own benefit or that of others. Many states are considering or imposing fines of up to $5,000 for those who willfully misrepresent disability and the specific training of a service animal.

Businesses' Rights

Businesses are allowed to challenge service animal status by asking if the dog or miniature horse is for assistance with a disability and inquire as to the nature of the task that the animal performs for its owner. They may not ask the nature of the disability, request a demonstration of the furry companion’s training or fitness and conduct, or otherwise inquire about the dog. In the case of miniature horses, some exceptions apply (housebreaking, size, etc.). Business owners may call police to report suspected violations and allow officers to handle the situation from there.

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Emotional Support or Assistance Animals and the Law

Emotional support animals, often referred to as assistance animals, are not protected under federal law. These creatures may be able to assist with generalized physical or mental health concerns that are not considered disabilities under the ADA. Common roles for emotional support animals include assistance with nerves or motion sickness on long flights.

The Air Carrier Access Act allows exceptions for assistance animals and uses the term "service animals" under a much broader definition than the ADA. This means you can bring your emotional support dog, rabbit, or peacock on board an aircraft for which you have purchased tickets. This doesn’t change your rights under the ADA, however, as an ACAA designation of service animal does not qualify for ADA protections.

Similarly, the Fair Housing Act recognizes assistance animals as a necessary part of some tenants’ health requirements. The FHA does not distinguish between assistance and service animals.

Can My Emotional Support Dog Become a Service Dog?

If you do suffer from a disability and would like to have your emotional support animal become a service dog, speak with your doctor or healthcare provider. It may take a year or more of training before your dog (or miniature horse) is able to perform the tasks and show proper behavior as a service animal, but it may well be worth the investment.

Pets Contribute to Our Lives by Making Us Happy

Pets are those loving, fluffy (or scaled, or hairless) family members we keep around the house to give us joy. There have been countless studies showing that they contribute to better overall health for owners of all ages, but pets don’t have any extra training or role beyond just making us happy. We spoil them rotten. We dress them up in funny costumes. We flood social media with their toothy grins. Unlike service dogs, pets are more likely to be obese and rarely get enough physical activity. Service and support animals often need to be in peak health to perform properly in their roles.

Can I Train My Pet to Be an Emotional Support Animal?

It can be hard to train a pet to become an emotional support animal, and should the need arise, even harder to get them to a service animal level of obedience and assistance. Still, for all those two- or four-legged critters who steal our hearts, there is the possibility of them becoming at least assistance animals when we need them.

Companies don’t have to “respect the vest” of a service animal, but they do need to respect the law. Understanding your rights to service animals, assistance animals, and pets under these laws is one step towards getting equal access as a person. Remember, too, that the law only places restrictions in order to assist, and some organizations go above and beyond to accommodate the needs of their visitors, guests, and customers.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.