Support and Service Animals: A Few Basics

August 21, 2018 by DRO Attorney David Scott / service and support animals

DISCLAIMER: This blog is meant to be used as a general resource. It does not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions, please contact our office at 614-466-7264 and select option 2 for intake.

Some of the most frequent questions we get involve disability rights laws and animals. There is widespread confusion, so this post will go over a few basics from two federal laws: the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. This post does not cover service animals in the workplace or animals on airplanes.

Let’s not worry about the terms “service animal,” “assistance animal” or “support animal” for a moment and, instead, ask yourself this question: If you are a person with a disability and need an animal, where is the animal going to be helping you?

  1. In your rented apartment, house, condominium or mobile home? or
  2. In a business that is open to the public, or to your doctor’s office, or on public transportation, or to a government building?
If you answered A, you have a support or assistance animal. (This can be any kind of animal.)

When a tenant with a disability lives in rental housing and needs an animal to provide emotional support or some other assistance, the federal law that applies is the Fair Housing Act. That law applies to virtually all rental property, including private landlords. It requires housing providers to grant tenant requests for changes in rules, practices or policies where there is a disability-related need.

A disability is a physical, mental or emotional impairment that severely limits a major life activity. If a doctor, mental health provider or other qualified professional documents that you need an animal to help with a need related to your disability, it is usually illegal for a landlord to deny your request. “No pets” rules do not apply, and landlords may not charge extra deposits or monthly fees, although they can charge for any actual damages caused.

The assistance the animal provides can be emotional support, assistance with standing or maintaining balance, help for tenants with visual or hearing impairments… whatever is needed. A trained service dog may be a support or assistance animal too. However, an animal doesn’t have to be trained for you to have a right to have it in rental housing.

We recommend making a request for an assistance animal in writing, with a doctor or mental health professional’s documentation. That note doesn’t have to go into detail about a diagnosis or include medical records. It should just document that because of the tenant’s disability, he or she needs an assistance animal (or some other change in a rule or policy). Keep a copy of anything you send. Landlords are allowed to offer forms for requests, but it isn’t clear they can require you to use their form.

If you answered B, you have a service animal. (This is almost always dogs only.)

If you have a dog that has been trained to perform a specific disability-related task, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies. The dog can be trained by you, someone else, or an agency. The ADA applies to “public accommodations” – businesses open to the public, including restaurants, movie theaters, retail or grocery stores. It also applies to governmental entities, including buses and public schools.

Service dogs may be guide dogs, but they may also help with many other kinds of tasks. From the U.S. Department of Justice:

In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability

The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure. 

Remember, certification is not required

No matter if you have a support animal or a service animal, there is no official registry, certificate, or papers. None can be demanded, and no one should pay for registration or official certification -- that does not exist.

Additional resources

Violations involving housing can also be reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

Violations of the right to assistance animals in housing or service animals in public accommodations can be reported to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission

For more information on animals and other kinds of reasonable accommodations in housing, see the HUD Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing Act page.

For more information on service animals and the ADA, see the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division's FAQ.

You can also see DRO’s Service Animals resource page or contact us for assistance.

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