Civil Rights Reporter
Media > Newsletters > Civil Rights Reporter > August 2019 > Animal Assistants

Civil Rights Reporter RSS feeds

Animal Assistants

Animals are great!  If you don’t love a dog, a cat, or some other furry creature, you are missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.  Pets provide many, many people with comfort, cheer, and companionship – and those are just the benefits that start with the letter “C”!

But animals can also provide much more – they can deliver very real physical and therapeutic assistance to people with disabilities.  Such animals are not “pets” in the traditional sense; instead – in the legal sense – they are called “animal assistants.”  And they are protected under Ohio law.  

Ohio’s laws protect everyone from unlawful discrimination (such as sexual harassment, racial discrimination, age discrimination, etc.).  The laws also provide additional protection for people with disabilities – “reasonable accommodations” that assist the person with living, working, and going places on an equal footing with other people.  In short, housing providers, employers, and businesses are required to provide people with disabilities “something extra” – a “reasonable accommodation” – if needed to allow the person to live, work, and attend public places.

One form of accommodation is allowing the person with a disability to use an animal, even if the housing provider, employer, or business has a general policy prohibiting animals or pets.  Here, the “reasonable accommodation” is to modify that general policy to allow the person with a disability to use their animal for their physical or therapeutic needs. 

“Animal assistant” is the phrase used in Ohio law for this type of animal that aids the disabled. Specific examples include a dog which alerts a hearing impaired person to sounds, a dog which guides a visually impaired person, and a monkey which collects or retrieves items for a person whose mobility is impaired. 

These are examples of animal assistants that perform tasks, and so they are commonly called “service animals.” Another type of animal assistant is the “emotional support animal.”  This type of animal does not perform a task, but nevertheless provides a therapeutic benefit to the person with a disability by simply being with the person.  Thus, “animal assistant” is an umbrella term encompassing both “service animals” and “emotional support animals.”

In contrast with pets, animal assistants are often prescribed by a medical provider or some service or support agency.  As a result, they should not be confused with (or considered) “pets.”  A common mistake made by housing providers, employers, and businesses is to automatically assume that an animal is a pet, when it is really an animal assistant.  How can you tell the difference?

To begin with, sometimes the disability and the need for an animal assistant are obvious. An example of this is a dog which guides a visually impaired person.  Of course, not all disabilities are obvious; even so, disabilities which are not readily apparent are still entitled to accommodations under the law.  For example, just as a blind person can be assisted by a “seeing eye” dog, a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be assisted by an animal that alerts the person to an impending panic attack, or by an animal that provides a needed calming effect for the person.  With this example, neither the disability nor the need for an animal is obvious.

As a housing provider, an employer, or a business, how can you tell when an animal assistant is needed for a disability that is not obvious?  The answer depends on whether you are a housing provider, an employer, or a business, and stems from the amount of time spent in each area. 

Just as you generally spend more time at home than at work, you similarly spend more time at work than you spend at, say, a restaurant.  These differences in time dictate the length and number of interactions possible between persons, and thus the amount of information that can reasonably be exchanged concerning an animal assistant.

The law takes these differences into account.  For example, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires places of public accommodations, such as restaurants, to allow service animals.  Under federal law, “service animal” is defined as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” As noted above, Ohio law is broader, defining a different term, “animal assistant,” as “any animal that aids the disabled.”  Thus, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission – the state agency responsible for enforcing Ohio’s discrimination laws – has adopted the federal approach of access for service animals (i.e., task-performing animals) in places of public accommodations, while not limiting such access to dogs alone.

Where the need for a service animal is not obvious, the Department of Justice has issued helpful guidance on the types of questions that can be asked of a person who wants to bring a service dog into a place of public accommodation.  Specifically, the person can be asked: 1) whether the dog is a service animal for a disability, and, if so, 2) what task(s) the dog has been trained to perform.  The Ohio Civil Rights Commission has adopted this two-question approach but, again, it is not limited to just dogs.  Importantly, the person cannot be questioned about the nature or extent of his or her disability, or be charged a fee for allowing access for the animal.  However, as long as the business charges customers in general for damages caused by the customer, the business can charge a customer for damage caused by his or her service animal.

Special identification (such as papers or an identifying “vest”) for the animal is not required; indeed, there is no recognized “certificate” or “license” for animal assistants available, despite the proliferation of on-line websites eager to sell you such “certification.”  These documents do not convey any rights or establish any proof that the animal is a service animal.

One question often raised is whether these laws require public places to allow unruly animals.  Simply put, the answer is no.  Just as people are not permitted to cause disturbances, service animals likewise are not permitted to cause disturbances.  On balance, by combining these elements – being identified as a service animal upon admittance (“Question 1”), being identified as trained to perform a specific task (“Question 2”), and not causing a disturbance – the risk of possible abuse is significantly reduced. 

These issues involving animal assistants in public places are generally carried over to employment and housing.  Nevertheless, employers and housing providers should keep in mind the greater time available for interaction concerning the animal assistant. 

In the employment context, there is much more opportunity for interaction between the employer and the employee, so more interactive communication is encouraged than simply the two questions allowed in places of public accommodations.  When the need for the animal assistant is not obvious, the employer may require documentation (such as from a medical provider) of the need for the animal as an accommodation.  The law encourages this “interactive process” of discussion to determine the needs of the employee and the ability of the employer to provide the accommodation.  The accommodation need not be provided if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer (such as excessive financial cost, necessities of the business, etc.). As in places of public accommodations, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission currently takes the position that, in employment, the animal must be trained to perform a task.

As you might predict, housing provides the greatest area of protection for animal assistants.  Again, when the need for the animal assistant is not obvious, the housing provider may request reliable medical documentation of a disability and the related need for an assistant animal. This does not mean that the housing provider can demand the tenant’s complete medical history and diagnosis.  Rather, the housing provider can ask for information from the medical provider establishing that the tenant has a disability, not the tenant’s specific medical condition. As in other situations, actual damage caused by an animal assistant can be addressed just as it is with any actual damage caused by a tenant.
The home is typically considered a refuge from the pressures of the outside world.  As a result, and due to the differences in available interactions, housing providers are required to be more accommodating of animal assistants than either employers or places of public accommodations.  Likewise, employers and places of public accommodations must also be mindful of the need to accommodate service assistants.

Of course, this brief article is not intended to be an exhaustive treatise on reasonable accommodations (or animal assistants), nor is it intended to be legal advice.  As each situation is unique, you should seek legal counsel for any specific situation that may arise.

Spring Training

Now that we caught the attention of all you baseball fans; bet you didn’t know that the Civil Rights Section does free trainings that cover many topics ranging from public accommodations, animal assistants, employment discrimination and fair housing.  In the past six months, the Section conducted 21 presentations for over 2,000 individuals.  The groups we presented to range from 1 person to 800 people.  Anyone interested in receiving free training or wanting to learn about Ohio’s discrimination laws can contact our office by e-mailing us at or calling (614) 466-7900 for more information.