Legal Distinctions Between Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, Assistance Animals, and Pets

service_animal_laws_in_michiganAnimals play a vital role in the health, safety, and wellbeing of people around the world. Certain animals, known as “service animals,” are specifically trained to assist individuals suffering from a range of disabilities, such as the visually or hearing impaired, people requiring help with balance or stability, or those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic seizures. In light of the importance that these animals have in society, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the state of Michigan grant significant protections to such animals and their handlers.

Other animals, known as “emotional support animals,” lack any special training but provide emotional support, companionship, and/or general therapy to their handlers. The ADA and state of Michigan do not extend protections to emotional support animals, despite a dependency on these animals by their handlers. However, owners of emotional support animals may find relief under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), which is understood to include emotional support animals in its definition of “assistance animal.”

Because of the inconsistencies between state and federal law, it can be a challenge for business owners, landlords, and individuals to understand when accommodations must be made with respect to service, emotional support, or assistance animals.

Service Animals and the Americans With Disabilities Act

The ADA prohibits “public accommodations” – businesses that are generally open to the public – from discriminating or refusing access to disabled people with qualifying service animals. Further, those entities must modify their policies and procedures to permit disabled persons to be accompanied by their service animals to the maximum extent possible, consistent with safe operations.

But, according to the ADA, only a dog may qualify as a “service animal” (notably, the ADA does make one exception to this definition to recognize certain miniature horses as service animals). A service animal must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks” for people with disabilities. The training requirement is critical – to qualify as a service animal, the animal “must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability,” such as:

  • Assisting blind or low-vision individuals with navigation and other tasks;
  • Alerting deaf or hearing-impaired people to the presence of other people or sounds;
  • Pulling a wheelchair and opening doors;
  • Detecting the onset of a seizure and helping the person remain safe during the episode;
  • Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone and reminding people to take medicines;
  • Helping individuals with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors; or
  • Alerting a person with diabetes when blood sugar levels are too high or too low.

By comparison, emotional support animals do not qualify for protection under the ADA.

Michigan applies the same definitions of “public accommodation” and “service animal” as the ADA, but has significantly broadened its protection of these animals and their respective handlers by providing a right of access even if such access violates state or local health codes:

[A] person with a disability shall be permitted to be accompanied by his or her service animal in all areas of a place of public accommodation where members of the public, program participants, clients, customers, patrons, or invitees are permitted to go, including public areas of establishments that sell or prepare food, even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

Assistance Animals Under the Fair Housing Act

Similar to the ADA, the FHA prevents housing providers from discriminating against tenants with physical or mental disabilities. Even if a lease prohibits or restricts pets in a “dwelling,” landlords must make “reasonable accommodations” for “assistance animals.”

It is important to note the FHA’s use of the term “assistance animal,” which is different than the ADA’s “service animal.” Although it is clear that assistance animals are not pets, the definition of assistance animal under the FHA extends beyond dogs and also removes the specific training requirement.

A U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development memorandum offers guidance to housing providers who encounter requests for a reasonable accommodation involving an assistance animal. In those situations, the landlord should determine:

  1. Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability – i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
  2. Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?

If the answers to both questions are yes, the FHA requires the housing provider to alter or create an exception to any “no pets” policy that would then allow the disabled person to occupy the premises with his or her assistance animal – regardless of breed, size, or weight. The landlord may still deny the request if, among other things, the assistance animal would directly threaten the health or safety of others or would cause substantial physical damage to others’ property that could not be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.

Michigan law does not make concessions for “assistance animals” in housing situations, opting instead to extend the narrower “service animal” definition. Because the FHA supersedes state law in many situations, however, landlords, housing providers, and property owners would be wise to follow the federal statute.

Additional Considerations

Despite differences in the definitions and legal protections relating to service animals and assistance animals, the following are some additional points that businesses, landlords, and employers should keep in mind regarding what they can and cannot do:

  • Service and assistance animals are not required to wear a vest, identification tag, or specific gear or harnesses;
  • Proof of the animal’s training, certification, or licensure is not required when evaluating a request for reasonable accommodation;
  • People with disabilities may train their animals themselves – use of a professional training program is not required; and
  • Absent damage caused by the animal, no additional fees can be charged for the animal’s presence on the property.

If you have questions about reasonable accommodations for service or assistance animals in your place of business or property, or if you are a disabled individual with concerns about such accommodations, please contact us today – we’ll be happy to discuss your situation with you.

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