This post diverges somewhat from my usual practice areas, but the topic interests me and I hope it will interest my readers as well.
Many people suffer from conditions which require assistance. Often, that assistance comes from animal support in the form of a service dog. Your legal rights vary depending upon the status of your service animal.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires privately owned businesses that serve the public to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.
The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the animal must be directly related to the person's disability. Service animals perform some of the functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform for him- or herself. People are most familiar with guide dogs for the blind, but service animals that provide assistance for any other disability meeting this definition are also considered service animals under the ADA. The ADA does not require service animals to be licensed or certified by any governmental entity, nor does it require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness. Business owners are not permitted to request any documentation for the animal, require that the animal demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability. They may ask only whether the service animal is required because of a disability, and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform. People who use service animals may not be isolated from or treated less favorably than other patrons, and may not be charged additional fees due to the presence of a service animal.
Growing attention is being paid to the category of “emotional support animals (ESA).” An ESA is not a service animal as defined by the ADA. Rather, an ESA is a companion animal that has been prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for a person with a verifiable disability as part of a treatment program, and is meant to bring comfort and minimize the negative symptoms of a person’s emotional or psychological impairment. A formal prescription letter from a licensed mental health professional is sufficient to categorize an animal as an ESA. Unlike service dogs, ESAs do not need any specific task-training. They are not required to perform any specific tasks for a disability, but are meant solely for emotional stability. Their presence alone mitigates the symptoms for which they assist the owner. Any domesticated animal (not only dogs) may qualify as an ESA. Once again, ESAs do not need to be licensed or certified by any governmental entity, or wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.
ESAs, however, are entitled to fewer legal protections than those afforded to service animals. The main difference is that with two exceptions, no public or private entity is legally required to permit an ESA access to their establishment, and their entry is not protected by law. The proprietor of any establishment that does not permit pets has no obligation to grant access to an ESA.
There are two exceptions to this ESA policy. First, under the Federal Department Air Carrier Access regulations, an airline must permit an ESA to fly with its handler in the cabin of an airplane without being charged a pet fee. The carrier may require certain documentation, most customarily a letter from a mental health professional verifying the necessity of the ESA for emotional or psychological support.
The other exception relates to housing. The Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA) requires “reasonable accommodations” in housing communities, even those that have a “no pets” rule. An ESA is considered a reasonable accommodation and must be permitted by property owners and landlords without extra charge. The FHA applies to most housing types, including apartments, condominiums and single family homes. Certain types of housing are exempted. For more specific information, see http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/FHLaws/yourrights.
One last caveat: several creative entrepreneurs have established websites offering their services to register your service animal or ESA with official-looking organizations such as the “United States Dog Registry”, the “National Service Animal Registry” the “United States Service Dog” registry, and others. Again, neither service dogs nor ESAs need be registered anywhere, so do not be taken in by these commercial websites who “facilitate” the registration of your animal for a sometimes substantial fee, and while they are at it, try to sell you a variety of equipment such as vests, tags and similar items which they suggest are necessary for proper identification of your service animal. Those items are not required. Do not be fooled by these sites.