Navigating the aftermath of an accident can be daunting. For many people, the companionship and assistance of an animal is an invaluable part of recovery. However, there is a lot of confusion surrounding service animals and emotional support animals.
We’ll try to demystify these terms, outlining the legal distinctions and rights associated with each.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”
Notably, the ADA clarified that other species of animals do NOT qualify as service animals, with the exception of miniature horses in rare cases.
Examples of service animals include:
- A dog that guides a blind person
- A miniature horse that alerts a deaf person
- A dog that pulls a wheelchair
- A dog that calms a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Under the ADA, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations must typically allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a facility where the public is otherwise allowed to go.
A service animal must be under control at all times. Under the ADA, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered. Fortunately, service animals undergo extensive training and are remarkably well-behaved. If you see a person with a dog in the grocery store, and the dog is rolling around or running up to random people, it’s almost certainly not a service animal.
Can the owner of an establishment or a staff member ask me about my service animal?
You enter a grocery store with your service animal by your side. The grocery store doesn’t allow animals except for service animals. As soon as you enter the store, you’re confronted by a staff member who starts peppering you with questions.
What, if anything, is the staff member allowed to ask you?
Under the ADA, staff may ask two questions:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Staff cannot ask about your specific disability. What’s more, staff cannot require medical documentation, an identification card, or training documentation for the animal.
The fact that staff are limited in their ability to inquire about service animals helps prevent disabled people from being harassed or forced to jump through additional hoops, but it also makes it easier for people to assert that an animal is a service animal when it’s not actually a service animal.
Emotional support animals
The primary role of an emotional support animal is to provide comfort and emotional support to individuals, particularly those with mental health disorders.
While emotional support animals may provide invaluable emotional assistance, they are NOT recognized under the ADA, and they do not enjoy the same range of legal protections as service animals. There are two primary laws that recognize emotional service animals:
- Fair Housing Act
- Air Carrier Access Act
Emotional support animals under the Fair Housing Act
You and your emotional support animal have certain rights under the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
- Right to housing: Under the FHA, housing providers are generally required to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities, including allowing emotional support animals in dwellings where pets might otherwise be prohibited.
- No pet fees: Housing providers can’t charge extra fees or deposits for emotional support animals. However, if an emotional support animal causes damage, the tenant can be held responsible.
- Proof of need: A housing provider may request documentation verifying the need for an emotional support animal if the disability is not readily apparent. In most cases, this means a letter from a licensed healthcare or mental health professional.
Emotional support animals under the Air Carrier Access Act
If you need to travel by plane, you and your emotional support animal have certain rights under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
- Right to travel: Under the ACAA, airlines are prohibited from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. This includes individuals who travel with emotional support animals. Airlines must permit the emotional support animal to accompany the passenger in the cabin, provided certain conditions are met.
- Documentation: Airlines can ask passengers to provide documentation verifying the need for an emotional support animal.
- Specific behavior and size restrictions: Airlines have the right to deny transportation to emotional support animals that are too large or heavy, pose a threat to the health or safety of others, cause significant disruption in cabin service, or are prohibited from entering a foreign country.
- No pet fees: Airlines can’t charge extra fees for emotional support animals, though they can charge for any damage caused by the animal.
Service animals and emotional support animals can become vital components of the recovery journey following an accident. While a service animal might be trained to assist with physical challenges, an emotional support animal might provide the emotional stability one needs after a traumatic event.
It's essential to understand the differences between the two, ensuring you're not only choosing the right companion for your needs but also that you're aware of the associated rights and limitations. Misunderstandings can lead to unnecessary legal disputes, adding stress to an already challenging period.