BY: SAMANTHA BARTLETT, DVM
Walk into any public environment these days and chances are you will see a therapy dog or two. The popularity of therapy and emotional support dogs has exploded over the past decade. However, with increased acceptance comes the potential for abuse and many businesses are cracking down on requirements that must be met before dogs are allowed in. There are three types of support animals: service animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals.
Only those dogs eligible to be classified as service animals are protected under the ADA Titles II and III. Service animals are those dogs that have been specifically trained to perform a task for a disabled person. Examples of service animals include guide dogs for the blind, signal dogs for the deaf or hearing impaired, psychiatric dogs, sensory signal dogs, and seizure response dogs. While the ADA definition specifically identifies dogs, some miniature horses can be accommodated under these laws as well.
Emotional support animals are not protected under the ADA, but are allowed as reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). As such they are “reasonable accommodations for a person with a disability but are not granted access to public venues as a service dog would be. Emotional support animals are those that provide therapeutic benefits to persons with a documented disability – usually mental or psychiatric. To be claimed as an emotional support animal, the disabled person must provide the landlord or airline with documentation (typically a letter) from a doctor or health professional stating this persona has a disability and a need for this animal to alleviate some aspect of the disability. These animals allow those persons to live a more normal and independent life. These animals are not necessarily trained to a specific task and are not limited to just dogs. Under the FHA, landlords must make accommodation for these animals regardless of the housing’s pet policy. Likewise, under the ACAA, air carriers must make accommodation for emotional support animals to travel in cabin with their person. Under these Acts, landlords and air carriers cannot charge extra fees for emotional support animals.
With the sudden increase in people claiming emotional support animals, companies on the internet have sprung up to help these people “register” their animals as ESA. These packages include certificates, ESA vests, special tags and ID cards identifying the pet as an emotional support animal. One can buy a plethora of service and ESA paraphernalia for their dogs on Amazon. Perhaps because they were not clear on the differences or fear legal ramifications, many restaurants and other venues have allowed emotional support animals into their establishments. Likewise, many air carriers have not asked for documentation before allowing these animals to fly in the cabin. As more and more people have taken advantage of this, the claim of an animal being an emotional support animal has been largely abused. An example of how these animals are not only a nuisance but dangerous is illustrated by a dog flying Delta Airlines as an emotional support animal last year that bit another passenger in the face multiple times resulting in hospitalization for that passenger.
The danger of this prolific abuse of the system is that those legitimately requiring ESAs or service dogs will be the ones to ultimately pay the price in hardship. As airlines and business owners are getting fed up with ill-behaved, false service animals invading their places of business, the truly disabled will find it harder to go about their normal life with their much needed assistants at their sides.