Published: July 24, 2015
By Mary Holloway Richard
Q: Sunday is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). What animals are currently considered to be service animals?
A: The definition of “service animal” comes from the ADA and includes animals individually trained to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities. As of 2011, Titles II (state and local government services) and III (public accommodations and commercial facilities) of the ADA recognize only dogs as service animals, although there’s a separate provision about mini-horses. In addition to service dogs, there are sensory or social signal dogs, psychiatric service dogs and seizure response dogs.
Q: Is there a difference between a “service animal” and a “therapy animal?”
A: Service dogs are trained to perform tasks or to do work for people with disabilities such as guiding the blind, alerting the deaf, pulling a wheelchair, reminding a person with a mental health diagnosis to take medications, or protecting a person who is having a seizure. The work must be directly related to the person’s disability. Therapy animals provide supports and comfort to people in many different types of situations. There seems to be an impression among some members of the public that the service designation includes untrained animals providing comfort to owners of varying degrees of independence. It is generally true that a mental health provider may provide a letter indicating that a “regular” pet provides emotional support as needed by the owner who has a mental health condition or disability, and special training is not required. An important distinction is that these are working animals and not pets. In my representation of hospitals over the years, I’ve been asked to advise concerning requests for visitation by a broad array of animals including burros, boutique cattle, and cats to serve specifically as therapy or emotional support animals. Some of the relevant case law from other jurisdictions involves monkeys and one involves a sugar glider, an Australian
Q: Do these rules apply just to hospitals or do they also apply to other types of facilities and providers of health services?
A: The guidelines for service animals also apply to surgery centers, dental clinics, assisted living and long-term care facilities, and urgent care and outpatient clinics. The federal requirement is to allow service animals to accompany persons with disabilities in all areas of a facility or office where the public is normally allowed to go. It’s my experience that hospitals are better prepared than these other sites listed and physician offices to respond to these requests. Hospitals generally have policies and procedures that mirror state and federal laws and industry best practices.
Q: Are there limits to these ADA requirements?
A: When service dogs raise valid concerns about patient safety and quality of care, all providers in their distinct care settings will find it necessary to balance patient, staff, employee and public safety interests. Common valid concerns for institutional and non-institutional providers include infection control, allergies, animal control, safety of others, disruption of care or ability to safely provide quality services. An example of such a concern is a situation where a service dog’s presence is desired in a health care setting but there’s no one to provide the necessary care for the service dog. I also have encountered service animals with open wounds or otherwise in need of veterinary care that posed risks to patient care and to personnel that had to be considered. Another issue that has arisen is a service dog trained to be protective in a manner that impedes care by staff, such as a dog trained to place itself between the patient and others.