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Service Animal or Support Pet?

Over the past few years, the controversy over the service animal issue has been escalating. People have been trying to pass household pets off as actual service animals or legitimately prescribed emotional support animals. They attempt to avoid “no pets” housing policies or pet deposits. They take their pets everywhere with them, even into places that don’t allow pets. As a result, there has been an uptick in the instances of unprovoked dog bites and other potentially dangerous situations involving animals in public spaces.

What does the ADA say?

The Americans with Disabilities Act has strict definitions and clear policies in place to define what a service animal is, and any privileges and legal protections afforded to service animals.

The ADA defines a service animal as “a dog (and in certain circumstances, a miniature horse) that is trained to perform specific tasks and provide specific assistance and support to a disabled person, directly related to their disabilities”. This includes PTSD. Service dogs can accompany their handlers anywhere.

However, the ADA’s definition does not apply to emotional support animals or pets of any species, including dogs, that are not specifically trained to provide these services.

The Fair Housing Act has guidelines

The Department of Housing and Urban Development follows the ADA guidelines with regard to service animals. Since these dogs are not pets as defined by law, landlords cannot charge a pet deposit or otherwise discriminate against a service animal.

The Fair Housing Act also provides policies and guidelines defining what an emotional support animal is and what protections and privileges apply to emotional support animals.

Emotional Support animals

There are no specific training requirements for emotional support animals. They can be any breed or species. Support animals provide support and comfort to people with mental health issues like depression or anxiety. They are not covered under the ADA.

There is no requirement for shops and restarants to allow them. And while landlords may allow them, they also have the right to request a legitimate letter from a board-certified professional. Sadly, this is becoming widely taken advantage of, as well. Anyone can buy a certification letter online without ever actually seeing a licensed therapist or clinical professional. Some therapists and clinicians refuse to write these letters unless they can ethically do so with a diagnosis.

Household Pets

A household pet provides many of the same benefits. Some will argue that an emotional support animal is nothing more than a household pet with protected status. Some people try to get their animals classified as “emotional support” in order to avoid putting down a pet deposit. However, this appears to be a deliberate misinterpretation and abuse of the Fair Housing Act as written and intended.

What does it mean?

Everyone on all sides of the issue agrees that a pet can provide a comforting presence in a person’s life. For instance, having a pet requires a sense of responsibility. A pet is an excellent companion, and can motivate you to exercise. Ironically, these are the same benefits of having an “emotional support” animal. So where is the line between an “emotional support” animal and a household pet that provides the same exact benefits?

The ADA is clear. Only dogs (and in extremely rare and exceptional cases, a miniature horse) can be classified as a service animal. The Fair Housing Act is also clear, but isn’t as stringent as the ADA guidelines. It also doesn’t offer the same protections to an emotional support animal that the ADA affords a service dog.

*For more information about service dogs and ADA requirements, check the Americans with Disabilities Act FAQs or contact the Jackson County Animal Protection Society.

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