Who Decides the Service Animal Rules?

It wasn’t that long ago when someone’s exposure to a service animal was seeing a person with limited vision being guided by a German shepherd in a special harness. Now we are much more familiar with seeing people with a variety of disabilities with service dogs in restaurants, hotels, and many other businesses. If you have taken a commercial flight, you may have seen someone with a dog or some other animal seemingly treating them little different than a pet. And you may have even seen a neighbor with no clear disability in your apartment complex living with an animal despite a well-known “no-pets” policy.

But, did you know that  the legal status of each of these animals is different? Or that their disabled handlers have different civil rights? Do you know how these rights may affect you?

This post is the first in a series dedicated to clarifying the legal differences among these special animals, and to explain why it is important that you know this information.

Whenever Congress passes legislation, federal agencies then write regulations to implement the new law. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) contains all these rules and regulations including those about Service Animals. In other words, this is the meat and bones of Service Animal law.

The primary source of regulations pertaining to Service Animals in the United States is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination toward people with disabilities in the workplace, public, and commercial settings. While the ADA does not mention Service Animals, it provides the definition of disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual. Regulations created to implement the ADA provide many guidelines for the right of people with disabilities to be accompanied by Service Animals.

In addition to the ADA, there are two other laws important to the rights of people who rely on service animals. The Air Carrier Access Act ensures those with a disability can fly when and where they care to go and, if applicable be accompanied by a Service Animal. The Fair Housing Amendments Act allows people with disabilities to live where they want and may give them the right to keep a Service Animal in their home.

In my next post, I will start to explore the actual definitions found in the CFR relating to Service Animals, Assistance Animals, and Emotional Support Animals.


Contributors: Mira Weiss, Esq and Philip Nostrand, Esq