Assistance Animals: Rights of Access and the Problem of Fraud

Assistance Animals:  Rights of Access and the Problem of Fraud ~ White Paper

AVMA Public Policy/Animal Welfare Division, April 2017

DISCLAIMER

The peer-reviewed white paper referenced here has been prepared by the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division at the request of the AVMA’s Steering Committee on Human-Animal Interactions. It is provided as information and its contents should not be construed as official AVMA policy. Mention of trade names, products, commercial practices or organizations does not imply endorsement by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was established to guarantee individuals with disabilities, whether those are physical or mental, equal civil rights at the federal and state level, in employment and in public spaces. The ADA requires reasonable accommodations be made for these individuals. For some, these accommodations mean allowing individuals to be accompanied at all times by their service animal. Service animals are working animals intended to perform specific tasks related to the person’s disability. Service animals, as defined in the ADA, may accompany their handler into areas the public is allowed to go, including on airplanes and in restaurants, without any additional fees that might otherwise be associated with an accompanying pet. The handler is still responsible for paying for any damages the animal may cause.1 

Some service animals, such as guide dogs, are now widely recognized and understood by most members of the community. However, service dogs for people with “invisible disabilities”, such as seizure alert dogs, hearing ear dogs, and mobility dogs (assisting with stability and walking), are not as readily recognizable as a service animal. As a result, these service animals are often subject to more scrutiny and may even be falsely denied access to public facilities. More recently, there has been increased recognition of how dogs may assist with psychological disorders. Mental health professionals are beginning to utilize the human-animal bond as a component of treatment for these individuals with diagnosed psychiatric disorders.

If the disorder is a psychiatric disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or autism, and the dog has been trained to perform a specific action that allows the person to carry out daily activities or takes specific actions to avoid or to mitigate the severity of the disorder, it is a service animal. Conversely, if the animal, which can be dog or any other species, provides companionship and emotional support for those diagnosed with a psychological disorder, it is an emotional support animal (ESA). ESAs serve a purpose in mitigating psychological disorders, but are not currently defined as service animals by the ADA.

Both service animals and ESAs are considered assistance animals as they accompany their handler and assist him or her; however because of their different legal statuses, the rights of access for ESA’s are not as broad as service animals. Specifically, ESAs are only allowed to accompany their handler on airplanes and in the handler’s residence without any fees that would be charged for accompanying companion animals. Similar to service animals, people with ESAs are subject to charges related to any damages the animal may have caused.

Currently, there is a perceived increase in problems caused by people fraudulently identifying their pet as an assistance animal to gain access and/or avoid pet fees, as shown by comments such as “I know more faux emotional support dogs than real ones.”2 This has led to calls for more regulations related to obtaining and identifying an assistance animal. Opponents, however, argue that a case can be made for permitting public access to any animal that accompanies a person and provides them some benefit, including companion animals, so long as those that are unsuitable, uncontrolled or dangerous are identified and denied access.

For those who wish to misrepresent their animals (either deliberately or because of a misunderstanding of its status), there are multiple entities that offer letter templates to provide as proof of ESA status, registrations as a service animal or ESA, official looking vests or harnesses, and other equipment to make an animal appear to be an assistance animal. As a result, disabled persons using a legally compliant assistance animal have reported that people in public spaces are becoming more hesitant and suspicious of allowing any animal into their business.2, 3

Part of the problem is that the lack of a centralized or standardized form of proof that can be used to ascertain an assistance animal’s status makes fraudulent animals difficult to identify. The ADA does not require any standardized training or certification program for service animals, nor does it require the handler to provide any form of documentation stating the necessity for a service animal. Such documentation is considered a barrier or unreasonable burden that could limit access to a service animal. Conversely, people who use ESAs may need to provide documentation stating the need for an ESA, but that documentation can be easily counterfeited.

There are other underlying problems that motivate people to commit assistance animal fraud and allow it to be widely successful. This includes 1) unstandardized legal and regulatory definitions related to assistance animals, 2) a legal and regulatory framework that is complex and poorly understood by those who must implement it, 3) difficulties in objectively or accurately categorizing animals when implementing admission policies enabling widespread fraudulent access, and 4) a lack of access for some who legitimately need an assistance animal.

1. US Government Publishing website. Electronic code of federal regulations: title 28, chapter 1, part 35. Available at: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text- idx?rgn=div5&node=28:1.0.1.1.36#se28.1.35_1136.  Accessed June 6, 2016

2. Bowes P. BBC News Magazine website. Advocates fight against fake service dogs. 2015. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31646970. Accessed June 3, 2016

3. CBS News website. Illegal fake service dogs may pose dangers to many. 2013. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/illegal-fake-service-dogs-pose-dangers-to-many/.
Accessed June 2, 2016 

The complete 16 page white paper is downloadable from AVMA:  www.AVMA.org  

October 2, 2017