Pennsylvania Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Know Your Rights: FAQs About Emotional
Support Animals and Service Animals

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Owning a pet brings companionship, comfort, and anxiety relief for dedicated pet owners. For some, these animals go beyond the typical definition of a companion, bringing their owners emotional support and essential services when dealing with different disabilities. Although legally allowed to accompany their owners into any establishment or home, service animal owners still face discrimination for needing these companions. Fortunately, The Animal Law Firm can help the people of Pennsylvania effectively address any discrimination they face for owning or bringing their support animals to different establishments.

What Is a Service Animal?

A service animal is typically a dog that has received particular training to carry out a task that a person with a handicap would be unable to do on their own, per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For instance, service dogs can help the visually impaired find their way, spot seizure activity, or get emergency access to life-saving medication. A service dog’s role goes beyond that of a pet or therapy dog. Some of the most common kinds of service dogs include:

  • Cardiac Service Dogs: Trained cardiac service dogs can detect harmful variations in a person’s blood pressure or heart rate through their sense of smell. Much more quickly than people can see the changes themselves, they warn people with cardiac problems to take emergency measures to prevent any harmful reactions or events from happening. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) cannot be performed by cardiac service dogs, but they can be trained to alert emergency responders to assist their handlers. If their owner loses consciousness or becomes disoriented, they can also get access to life-saving medical attention or medication.
  • Mobility Service Dogs: Mobility service dogs can aid their owners in safely navigating their environment without falling or getting wounded. A mobility service dog can be trained to carry out a variety of duties, including picking up lost objects, clearing minor obstructions from a person’s route, or serving as a brace for individuals with balance issues when getting up or sitting down. Mobility assistance dogs are trained to fetch goods for their handlers, preventing them from falling and keeping them seated. Mobility service dogs sometimes come in large breeds since they must be able to support at least a percentage of their owner’s weight when employed as a brace.
  • Allergy Detection Service Dogs: Service dogs that sniff out allergens can save lives by using their excellent sense of smell. An allergy-detecting service dog can identify an allergen and warn its handler of the threat if there is enough of that allergen in a certain product or food. For instance, brownies without peanuts might be offered to a person with a serious peanut allergy. However, if they had been cut with a knife that had previously been used to cut something with peanuts, cross-contamination would make that brownie slice contain trace amounts of peanuts. Even though the scent of a peanut is faint, an allergen detection service dog will identify it and warn its owner. It is crucial to understand that assistance dogs trained to detect allergens are not searching for substances but rather scents. The assistance dog might not be able to detect an allergy if it is present but has no odor.
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs: Psychiatric service dogs are taught to recognize when their owner’s mood changes and to intervene to help their handler. These service animals are trained to acknowledge events that can make their handler more agitated or angry, warning their handler to avoid them. A psychiatric service dog can also help those who experience auditory or visual hallucinations. The dog can be trained to help determine whether a third person is present or is only hallucinating. If the owner gets lost, psychiatric service dogs can direct their handler back home or to safety. Psychiatric service dogs offer constant access to support, which is essential for those with a mental illness that requires immediate care in the event of an episode.
  • Guide Dogs: The most widely recognized kind of service dog is a guide dog, which is a service dog for those with vision issues. This kind of service dog is easy to identify because it is equipped with a unique harness that evenly distributes pressure so that the handler and the dog can communicate rapidly. For those who have vision issues, crossing a major intersection can be quite risky. When a guiding dog wears a harness, the dog can pull and signal to its handler whether or not to go forward. Guide dogs, in contrast to the majority of other service dogs, are taught a system of intelligent disobedience. This allows them to defy or disregard their handler’s commands in dangerous situations or when obeying them may endanger that person’s safety.

Regardless of what service the dog provides, it must be legally recognized as a service animal to be protected by the ADA. According to the National Service Animal Registry, a service dog should cost no less than $17,000. The total cost of training the dog frequently exceeds $40,000. However, many groups help individuals in need with donations or grant applications. For some, a written declaration of the need for these support animals can be sent to one’s insurance company. This can help get these expenses covered by insurance.

What Is an ESA Letter?

An ESA letter serves as proof that a person’s mental or emotional healthcare program requires an emotional support animal. Emotional support animals may reside in houses and leased properties that ordinarily do not permit pets with a valid ESA letter. The only supporting paperwork required by the U.S. Department of Housing to demonstrate that an animal is an ESA is an ESA letter. ESA letters can be ordered in person or online. However, they must be prepared by a medical expert who is licensed to practice in Pennsylvania.

How Does an Animal Become an Emotional Support Animal?

Depending on the condition of the owner, a pet can become an emotional support animal, which is considered a necessary part of the owner’s psychiatric treatment plan. An ESA letter must be written by a licensed mental health professional who recommends an emotional support animal. That practitioner must be treating the applicant for an ESA letter as a patient for a psychological issue and possess a current license relevant to the state. An ESA letter is the only valid form of identification for an emotional support animal. Emotional support animal certification or registration that does not deal with ESA letters is not verified and should be avoided.

Common Issues Faced by Those With Service Animals

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was established to legally protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination, including those with service animals. Although these protections are in place, those with service animals or emotional support animals still face complications with using them throughout their daily lives. Some common situations where those with ESAs or service dogs may face discrimination include the following:

  • Travel Restrictions: ​​The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) guards against discrimination against people with disabilities by commercial airlines. It also defends the rights of passengers who are traveling with service animals. Both emotional support animals and service animals fall under this category. Even if the airline typically prohibits pets, the ACAA permits owners to carry their emotional support animal or service animal into the cabin of a passenger plane. The ESA or service dog is transported at no cost. The need for an ESA is officially established through an emotional support letter. It must have been written within the last year and presented on letterhead or a prescription pad from a qualified medical doctor or mental health specialist. Before the flight, the airline must get these documents.
  • Residency Issues: By requiring reasonable accommodations from landlords, the Fair Housing Act is designed to protect disabled individuals when looking for housing by forbidding landlords from discriminating against renters with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act also applies to college campuses and university residence halls, permitting students to reside on campus with service animals or emotional support animals (ESAs). These rules are subject to exceptions, and unhygienic, violent, or disruptive animals may not be allowed into certain buildings despite being designated as necessary ESAs. To get clearance for an emotional support animal, make sure it has received the necessary training and can behave around other people and animals.
  • Problems in the Workplace: For those who require a service dog to accompany them throughout the day, any workplace that employs that individual will need to make accommodations to allow these service animals to stay with their handlers. For example, if a person with a serious heart condition requires the assistance of a cardiac service dog, their employer will need to make accommodations to allow that employee to come to work with their animal. However, the law does not extend to emotional support animals. An employer has the right to deny a request to bring these animals into the workplace.

While Pennsylvania and federal law have different definitions of service animals, public establishments in Pennsylvania are required to abide by both, and their customers are free to depend on whatever statute offers the greatest level of safety. It is against the law in Pennsylvania for a public establishment to refuse admittance to someone employing a service animal. This can be a guide dog, signal dog, service dog, or other assistance animal that has been authorized by a recognized agency to help a person who is visually or hearing impaired or who has another chronic physical condition. If denied entry to an establishment, or made to leave for having a service animal, speak with a legal professional about addressing this discrimination.

Are Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals the Same Thing?

Even though therapy animals, such as emotional support animals, are frequently utilized in medical treatment plans, they are not protected by the ADA as service animals. These therapy animals do not have specialized training to carry out tasks that help individuals with disabilities. However, they do provide company, alleviating loneliness. They also occasionally help with sadness, anxiety, and certain psychiatric disorders.

Although certain states have defined therapy animals in their legislation, these animals are not just used to assist people with disabilities. Therefore, they are not protected by federal regulations that govern the use of service animals. People who need help with their mental, social, physical, or cognitive functioning can go to a clinic to benefit from interacting with therapy animals. This can be used to claim that an emotional support animal is not necessary for care. The importance of an ESA letter from a licensed psychiatrist or medical professional is necessary to make an animal’s ESA title legally enforceable in situations such as housing or travel. These designations further allow animal owners to bring their ESAs with them for the necessary support these animals bring.

Are Emotional Support Animals Protected by the ADA or FHA?

Emotional support animals differ from service animals, so they do not receive the same legal protections under the ADA or FHA that service animals receive. However, with a written ESA letter, the owners of emotional support animals can request accommodations that allow them to retain residency despite restrictions on owning animals. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) mandates that the modifications landlords must offer for renters with disabilities (including ESAs) must be reasonable. For the sake of the animal’s health and care, an ESA handler should be allowed to at least partially walk the pet around. Landlords are not obligated to let ESA owners bring their animals anywhere in the building, including the gym, other tenants’ apartments, or community gathering areas. Nevertheless, they must still make a reasonable effort to ensure that individuals who require an ESA can always have their pets with them.

Standing Up for Service Animal Rights

Despite legal protections, those with service animals face an alarming amount of discrimination for needing these dogs in their daily lives. The Animal Law Firm in Pennsylvania understands the complexity of these issues and is here to help address any problems that service animal handlers or emotional support animal owners face from business owners, tenants, or even coworkers. For more information on our firm, including a full list of other animal-related practice areas, visit our website and contact us today.



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