Unlike decades ago, the world we live in has become a complex global society where the movement of people is more fluid. The age of growing up and living in one area, never seeing or visiting other parts of the world or even within the United States has long passed for most of the population. Living among us, however, are individuals who face challenges that require special accommodations and considerations for them to live an independent life.
The time when those who have physical or mental disabilities were expected to have someone with them always to perform activities that otherwise would have been off-limits for them has passed. Thankfully great strides have been made in services that encourage independent living among the disabled. One such service that arguably may be the best program that supports independence is the service animal industry.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as any dog that is specially trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disabilities. The action or tasks performed must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Typical examples of such service dogs would see eye dogs for the blind; dogs used to pull wheelchairs or even those that can warn or protect individuals from imminent seizures.
While there are individuals who benefit from federal protections for service dogs, those who suffer severe emotional disabilities and require the use of an emotional support animal are not generally covered under the ADA’s guidelines except for two areas, travel and housing.
What is an emotional support pet?
An emotional support animal (ESA) provides companionship and emotional support for people diagnosed with a severe mental or emotional disability. An example of a disability that may benefit from an emotional support animal could be someone suffering from severe anxiety or depression. The need for an ESA is always documented by a letter from a mental health professional which legally guarantees their right to live and travel with the animal. These support animals are not always dogs or cats, though they are more common. Other species such as mice, birds, hedgehogs or other animals that are commonly domesticated can be used as well.
Traveling with an emotional support pet
The Department of Transportation (DOT) under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACCA) provides specific protections for individuals traveling with an emotional support animal by plane in the United States. Because of heightened safety concerns and the enclosed space in which air travel is done, the restrictions are considered tighter than other laws regarding ESAs. The ACCA allows disabled handlers the right to travel with their support animal in the cabin and free of charge, but there are certain conditions. Under the DOT’s rules, unusual animals are prohibited from the guidelines. It can include snakes, reptiles, rodents, and other animals.
If you are intending upon traveling with your ESA, there are a few things you should be aware of. First, the DOT gives carriers the right to request additional documentation before agreeing to allow your animal to be transported in the cabin. Though the added documentation may vary from carrier to carrier, most common requirements are for an ESA letter certifying the traveler’s disability and the need for a specific support animal that is no older than one year old or veterinary records stating the health of the animal.
Those individuals who rely on emotional support animals should also be aware that should you need to travel outside of the United States, foreign carriers that fly to and from the US are only required to accept dogs as an emotional support animal. Great care should always be taken when traveling abroad. Host countries do not usually have the same laws regarding these animals that we do, and you could find upon entering that your pet is not allowed. Consult an advisor at embassies and the State Department for additional information.
If you intend to travel by other means of mass transit (bus, commuter rail, etc.), the DOT’s rules are not as supportive and not covered by the ADA. In these circumstances, local providers are allowed to either classify the animal as a service animal or as a pet. If support animals are treated as pets, they can accept them under the same pet policy or pricing policy as service animals or ban them entirely. Transient lodging is also exempt from being forced to accept ESAs as anything other than pets. When traveling, we recommend that you seek out places that are pet-friendly.
Living with an emotional support pet
Individuals suffering from severe mental or emotional issues that require an ESA are protected by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (DOT) under the umbrella of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Rehab Act. They enforce the rules regarding emotional support animals as well as service dogs. While service dogs are required to be specially trained to perform a job, the FHA guidelines do not need any training for an emotional support animal including basic obedience. However, ESAs residing in a residential community are subject to specific regulations or requirements. This can include registrations, vaccinations, and prohibitions. Property owners or landlords have a right to request an ESA letter just like airlines to prove an individual’s legal rights under the ADA and HUD guidelines. Although pets may be denied under standard rental agreements or typically assessed fees or deposits, in the case of an ESA, no such demands can be made. However, if an emotional support animal causes damages, the tenant can be legally held responsible. More information here – Emotional Support Animal Letter for Housing
Employment laws concerning emotional support pets
Individuals that are disabled are covered under the Equal Employment Opportunity Act (EEOC). The Act prohibits employment discrimination by race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, and marital or familial status. Added as an amendment to Title VII, it expands the protection of Title VII to public and private employers with 15 or more employees, both public and private labor organizations with at least 15 members, and employment agencies. In addition to the EEOC, disabled Americans are also protected under the ADA. The ADA requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees and applicants who have disabilities regardless if the disability is seen or unseen. Changes to how a job is completed or a change in a policy that does not cause undue hardship on the employer that allows a disabled individual to perform the task effectively are considered a reasonable accommodation. While service dogs are automatically covered under these laws, support animals currently reside in a gray area. Some emotional disabilities such as severe stress or anxiety may be covered under employment laws, but others may not.
Any employer that receives a request for the accommodation of an emotional support animal should treat the application just as they would for any other housing. It is always in the best interest of both the employer and employee to work together to build a supportive working environment as long as the accommodations requested would not cause undue hardship or create an environment that could be dangerous to the anyone including the disabled individual.
Undue hardships that may prevent employers from accommodating a request could be a substantial financial cost, the size and number of employees or how the accommodation would affect the facility and the employer. Employers are allowed to expect that any support animal is free from bad odors, be housebroken or potty-trained and not pose a threat to the health or safety of other individuals in the workplace.
While it is a gray area in the laws, many employers are open to an honest and forthcoming discussion about an employee’s need for an emotional support animal. They may request the ESA letter to help them make an informed decision. However, as with all other provisions, there is limited information that employers may demand regarding protected medical information. It is advisable to address specific concerns with a qualified HR representative or other legal professionals if additional information is needed.
Public access laws for emotional support pets
The United States government does not recognize emotional support animals as service animals that perform a job for their handler. Because of this, ESAs do not have the protections in public access areas like service animals do. If the individual state also does not offer protections, access to public areas with emotional support animals can be limited. If your state has not defined additional protections, seek out support-friendly areas that may be close by. Many businesses and business owners are becoming more sympathetic to individuals who suffer from debilitating disorders and are making changes in their policies to accommodate them.
Emotional support pet letter from EZCare Clinic
All fifty states are covered under the American’s with Disabilities Act, Air Carrier Act, Fair Housing Act, and the Rehab Act. While many states leave the protections associated with emotional support animals to the federal government, some states have begun to expand or add to those protections to ensure a higher number of disabled individuals receive equal treatment. To ensure that your rights have not been violated or that as an employer, you are not discriminating against someone unintentionally, check out your individual state’s website for additional information. Understanding the disability laws in your area allows you to advocate for yourself and others effectively regarding housing for emotional support animals and traveling with your ESA. Our physicians here at EZCare Clinic would be glad to help you with all of your questions regarding emotional support pets, as well as aid you in getting a legitimate emotional support animal letter. We are here to help 7 days a week, from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm PST, feel free to give us a call at (415) 966-0848 and make an appointment today online or in-person.
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