New Rise in Certified “Service Animals” Sparks Controversy

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Think of a “service animal,” and a seeing-eye dog probably comes to mind. But these days you’ll find not just dogs but pigs, monkeys, turtles, and cats that fall under the broad umbrella of “service animal.” Lack of regulation means that any pet can be designated a service animal, and more and more owners are taking advantage of opportunities that were originally meant to help people with disabilities.

What Exactly is a Service Animal?

No official body exists to test and certify service animals, meaning that any owner can call their animal a service animal. Many certification programs exist, and vary in legitimacy, from those offered by the state to those offered online. Several sites sell certificates, vests, and ID tags for your animal for a fee – no training or testing required.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require service animals to be certified but it does have a limited definition of what a service animal is. It defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” Businesses that serve the public, like restaurants, hotels, and stores, must allow service animals inside with their owners. Business owners “may not insist” on getting proof that the animal is in fact a service animal or that the owner has a disability.

Businesses suspecting an animal is not a legitimate service animal will likely still allow animals in, not wanting to risk a discrimination lawsuit.

The Rise of “Emotional Support Animals”

Unlike guide dogs for the blind, which go through several months of training before donning the vest in public, many service animals have no training at all, not even basic training. Animals considered “emotional support animals” or “psychiatric service animals” need only provide general emotional or mental support to their owners.

These kinds of service animals are not supported under the ADA as of 2011, and that’s where a difficulty arises. It’s impossible to tell who needs their animal for legitimate support, as defined by the ADA, and who doesn’t. Not all service animals are guide dogs. Some dogs are trained to help people with diabetes or hypoglycemia, to alert an owner when a seizure is coming on, or to calm someone with PTSD during an attack. It’s not possible to tell at a glance what a service animal does.

Emotional support animals are allowed on airlines, though. The Air Carrier Access Act applies to aircraft and allows people with disabilities to travel with either a service animal (as defined by the ADA) or an emotional support animal. Documentation in the form of a doctor’s letter is required to travel with an emotional support animal; otherwise, the carrier has to accept the “credible verbal assurances” that the animal can be on board. The act specifically covers only individuals with disabilities, but airline employees may be reluctant to ask a passenger about their health issues.

Unfortunately, some owners want to travel with their pets and will take advantage of the law to do so. Passengers have been complaining more frequently about the unpleasantness of traveling besides animals, especially untrained animals, even if they supposedly are service animals.