The federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes service animals as those are trained to assist the blind, deaf, and other disabled persons in specific tasks such as walking or retrieving objects. The ADA requires “public accommodations” to permit full access to one type of recognized service animal, dogs. A public accommodation includes a wide range of institutions into which the public is regularly invited, such as transit systems, restaurants, hotels, theaters, doctors’ offices, pharmacies, retail stores, museums, libraries, parks, private schools, and day care centers. (Airlines, religious houses, and certain private clubs are exempted.)
Under the ADA, public accommodations that do not allow full access to service dogs, without a fee, can be civilly and even criminally prosecuted. However, a public accommodation is permitted to inquire what specific task a service animal is trained to perform. The ADA also recognizes another type of service animal—miniature horses—that public accommodations must accept on a case-by-case basis, depending on the size and purpose of the facility. Federal law does not require service animals to be labeled (such as by wearing a vest or sign) and does not mandate specific training requirements for service animals.
State laws also protect and regulate service animals. For example, Alaska, Maryland, Montana, and Oregon permit “other animal[s]” to be recognized as service animals, and cats and birds have been so designated. Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Washington, and Wyoming specifically allow “miniature horses” to be service animals with the same right of access as service dogs. About half of all states waive fees and licenses for service animals, though in some cases the owner must prove the animal’s training and status to eligible for an exemption from licensing fees.
All but six states (Alabama, Alaska, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, and West Virginia) have “service animal interference” laws that criminalize killing, assaulting, or recklessly or maliciously interfering with the activities of a service animal. Violators can face a simple misdemeanor for willfully interfering with a service animal in New Hampshire, up to a one-year term of imprisonment and $10,000 fine in California for causing intentional injury to a service animal. In 28 states and the District of Columbia, it is a crime to fraudulently represent that an animal is a service animal, including by fraudulently using an insignia or service-animal vest.
“Emotional support animals” are those that provide comfort to relieve symptoms of distress or disability (but are not trained to perform a specific task) and can include a wide range of animals. Emotional support animals are not recognized as service animals under federal law unless they are trained to assist their owner with a specific task. Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, and Washington explicitly prohibit emotional support animals from the legal protections afforded service animals. Wyoming distinguishes between the two and provides some limited protection for emotional support animals.