Are all animals owned by people with disabilities classified as service animals?

No. The ADA has a specific definition for what a service animal is.

Under the ADA, a service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

What exactly is a service animal?

Under the ADA, a service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

An image of a boy with crutches and his service dog.An image of a person in a wheelchair with their service dog. So it has to be a dog?

Yes, with one exception. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of the ADA. But there is a possible exception for miniature horses. An entity shall provide access, or shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures to permit the use of a miniature horse by an individual with a disability if the miniature horse has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a  disability. But there are additional assessment factors for miniature horses. To determine whether to allow a miniature horse into a specific facility, the entity must consider: the type, size, and weight of the miniature horse and whether the facility can accommodate these features; whether the individual has sufficient control of the miniature horse; whether the miniature horse is housebroken; and whether the miniature horse’s presence in a specific facility compromises legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation.

Back to the ADA definition of service animal, what does it mean by “does work or performs tasks”?

An image of a woman in a wheelchair petting her miniature service horse. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure,  alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological  disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.

An image of a service dog inserting a card into the ATM machine.An image of a service dog .The dog is shown in three positions: when it is conducting the following operations at the ATM machine: depositing a check, waiting for the transaction to be finalized and taking a deposit slip.

My animal doesn’t do those things, but it’s a big dog and is a deterrent to criminal activity, which is important to my well-being. Does that count?

The crime deterrent effect of an animal’s presence does not constitute work or tasks for purposes of the ADA definition of service animal.

My animal does not do those kinds of tasks, but it provides emotional support for me. I have a letter from my doctor saying that the animal provides comfort to me and should be with me at all times. Does that meet the definition?

No, the ADA regulations are very specific on that. The provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship does not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of the definition.

So comfort animals, emotional support animals, or therapy animals are not service animals and are not covered by the ADA.

The definition mentions service dogs for psychiatric disabilities, though. Isn’t a therapy animal the same thing?

No. There are psychiatric service dogs, but that’s not the same as a comfort or therapy animal. Psychiatric service animals are trained to perform tasks that assist individuals with disabilities to detect the onset of psychiatric episodes and ameliorate their effects. Tasks performed by psychiatric service dogs may include reminding the handler to take medicine, providing safety checks or room searches for persons with PTSD, interrupting self-mutilation, and removing disoriented individuals from dangerous situations. The difference between an emotional support animal and a psychiatric service animal is the work or tasks that the animal performs.

Where is a service animal allowed to go?

Generally, a service animal is allowed to go wherever the person with the disability can go, meaning that they can go wherever the public is allowed to go.

What about a restaurant? Is it hygienic to allow service animals to go where people eat?

A place of public accommodation must modify its policies to allow a service animal to accompany an individual with a disability, unless it would result in a fundamental alteration or would jeopardize the safe operation of the public accommodation. In a restaurant, a service animal must be allowed to accompany the person with a disability in all areas that are open to other patrons.

What about a hospital?

In a hospital, the same is true, except that there may be certain areas of the hospital where having a service animal could jeopardize safety, such as in the sterile environment of an operating room.

Are there circumstances under which a person might have to remove a service animal, even if it meets the definition of service animal?

Yes, but it’s rare. It’s all right to ask an individual with a disability to remove a service animal from the premises if either the animal is out of control and the individual does not  take effective action to control it, or the animal is not housebroken.

What the regulations mean by the animal being “out of control” is that the animal must be under the individual’s control. It must have a harness, leash, or other tether, unless the individual is unable to use one of those because of the disability and, if that’s the case, then the animal still has to be under some kind of control – like voice control or signals.

If an animal is properly excluded because the animal is out of control or is not housebroken, then the entity has to give the  individual with a disability the opportunity to participate in the  service, program, or activity, or enter the place of public accommodation, without having the service animal on the premises.

If a service animal is on the premises, who is responsible for its care and supervision?    

That’s an easy one. The person with the service animal is responsible for its care and supervision at all times. The entity is not responsible for the care or supervision of a service animal.

Is it all right for a business or other entity to require documentation that shows that the animal is a service animal?

Unless it is readily apparent that the animal is a service animal (and most of the time, it is apparent), then the entity may ask if the animal is required because of a disability. It is not, however, allowed to require documentation, such as proof that the animal has been certified, trained, or licensed as a service animal.

If an entity requires a pet deposit, or charges extra for people who have pets, do those fees apply to service animals, too?

No. An entity cannot ask or require an individual with a disability to pay a surcharge, even if people accompanied by pets are required to pay fees, or to comply with other requirements generally not applicable to people without pets. If an entity normally charges individuals for the damage they cause, an individual with a disability may be charged for damage caused by his or her service animal.

This page contains information provided by The ADA National Network Disability Law Handbook created by Jacquie Brennan Southwest ADA Center.