Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, and Your Legal Rights

When you’ve had a rough day, there’s nothing better than coming home to a pet that greets you with an excited kiss or a warm cuddle! Pets, from the fuzzy to the scaly, are a great source of happiness for many people, and provide companionship and support. In the case of service animals, they can even help their owners get through their daily routine, provide comfort, or sense seizures, panic attacks, or other health concerns.

While pets of all types can provide happiness and affection, service animals are far more than everyday pets.

Service Animals and the ADA

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for someone with a physical, mental, psychiatric, sensory, or intellectual disability. For example, a service animal might guide a blind person or help calm down a person with autism. While this definition is relatively broad, it generally only applies to dogs and miniature horses.

Service animals can come into public places, like stores, restaurants, and museums. Additionally, people with disabilities have the right to a service animal in their home, regardless of their housing facility. Facilities cannot charge people for bringing in a service animal or require documentation.  To deny them the use of a service animal would hinder their ability to use and enjoy the facilities, an infringement on their ADA rights.

Defining Emotional Support Animals

In other cases, an animal provides emotional support. These animals are not necessarily service animals, but rather emotional support animals. According to the American Kennel Club, an emotional support animal is an animal that has been prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. For example, if someone has severe PTSD, an emotional support animal might calm them down during a traumatic flashback. Similarly, an animal might help someone with depression find something to focus on in life. For people with debilitating mental illnesses, emotional support animals can vastly improve their quality of life. However, emotional support animals are not service animals.

Both service animals and emotional support animals proved extremely important help to people with disabilities, ranging from simple companionship to life-changing assistance. Unfortunately, these animals can also lead to legal troubles.

The Problems of Emotional Support Animals

Some issues occur when people try to manipulate the system. It’s understandable that some people want to bring their pets with them everywhere they go. However, some people have taken things a step too far, registering their pet when in reality, they have no physical or mental disabilities that requires the use of an emotional support animal. This is akin to someone using a friend’s handicapped sticker to secure a better parking spot. It causes real issues for people who are actually in need of better accessibility. For example, when someone brings their badly trained pet into a store, claiming that it’s a service animal, the pet might injure someone or cause damage, leading to a growing distrust of service animals.

In other cases, people might try to stretch the definition of a service or emotional support animal a little far. While a dog or cat are conventional pest, people have said they rely on the help of squirrels, raccoons, spiders, or in a recent case, peacocks! While it’s not up to us to judge whether these animals provide help or not, we can assume that they might cause problems in a public space. If an animal is large, poisonous, or ill-tempered, it could lead to injuries and damage instead of help and support.

Legal Issues Over Service Dogs

Other times, legal issues involve people who really do need the help of an animal. Take, for example, a recent case involving a college sorority house in Ohio. One member of the house had a therapy dog that helped her manage her anxiety and panic attacks. However, another woman in her sorority suffered from allergies to dogs, which caused flare-ups of her asthma and Crohn’s Disease. When the first woman was asked to move out, she filed a lawsuit over a violating of her rights.

This case shows the complications of service animals. Since both panic attacks and allergies fall under the ADA, both women are entitled to protection. So does one get preference? Is one more protected than the other? It’s a complicated issue. And as emotional support animals become more common, one that we’ll have to confront again.

Know Your Rights

The debate over service dogs and emotional support animals is often heated and controversial. This is why it’s important to know the complexities of the ADA and your rights!


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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