I often see in pet groups people asking about service animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals (ESA). Sadly there is alot of misinformation and ignorance on this subject. I'd like to share some knowledge.
This is US based info. Different countries have different laws. I suggest when searching for info find actual government run sites as alot of personal sites (no matter how professional they look) can say whatever they want and it not be true.
First terminology. Each of these terms is sometimes wrongly used interchangeably but they each have a different meaning, different laws, and different uses.
Service animals are either dogs or miniature horses, except within a very few states that legally allow other types of animals. Service animals are for people with a disability and must be trained in tasks that relate to and mitigate the disability. Most commonly known would be dogs for the blind. But service dogs can benefit many disabilities both obvious and invisible such as; diabetic alert, seizure alert, mobility support, helping with PTSD and mental disorders, etc...
You must be legally disabled to have a service animal. Being legally disabled does not mean you are on disability or can not work. The legal definition of Disabled under the ADA is: a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
In order to be a service animal, the animal must be trained in tasks directly related to the person's disability. Comfort or just being with you is not a trained task and therefor does not count.
A service animal must be well trained, behaved and fully under the handler's control.
ONLY service animals are allowed public access. That means the owner is allowed to bring their service animal with them in any business even if it does not allow pets, such as restaurants, grocery stores, etc... What ever is open to the public, the handler and their service animal is allowed. They can not ask you to leave because of allergies, fear of dogs, because of food, etc... They may ask you to leave if your animal is being disruptive or is out of control.
A business is allowed to ask the handler two questions before admitting them entrance.
1. Is that a service dog?
2. What tasks does it provide?
Service animals are allowed in no pet housing in most cases (see below), with pet deposits/fees waved, allowed in hotels, and on public transportation and flying.
Their is no legal registration, certification, ID, or test an animal has to have to be a service animal. The websites you see online that advertise this are all scams. They are taking advantage of people who do not know the law and also giving people who just want to take their pets into public an easy way to fraud the system and fake their pet. People have registered their rocks, killer whales and other silly objects/pets to show how meaningless it really is. These sites are highly frowned upon in the service animal community. Showing a legally meaningless ID or registration to a business, only confuses the public and makes it harder for legit teams.
Service dogs can be any breed, any size. While vests and patches showing they are a service dog are quite common it is not actually the law that they have to be vested either.
Service animals can be trained and obtained through organizations or be owner trained.
A FAQ on Service Animals by the ADA:
Service Dog in Training. While in training, service animals are NOT covered under the ADA but instead covered in each states laws individually. Some states grant us the same rights to have our SDiT as service dogs others do not. Which means in some states your SDiT is not allowed public access.
A therapy animal is an animal trained to provide comfort and support to groups of people in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, schools, and in stressfull situations. They can be a wide variety of animals including: dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, etc... They need some basic training and to be calm, polite and ok with groups of strangers. There are different training and programs in different areas.
Therapy animals are not meant to work with a single person. They are not allowed in the general public such as stores or restaurants.
Therapy animals are granted no special privileges towards housing or flying.
Emotional Support Animals (ESA):
ESAs are companion pets that provide therapeutic benefit and comfort, such as alleviating or mitigating symptoms of the owner's disability.
You must be legally disabled to qualify for an ESA. Being legally disabled does not mean you are on disability or can not work. The legal definition of Disabled under the ADA is: a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
Many disabilities can benefit from an ESA, though most commonly used with mental or psychiatric disabilities.
ESAs require NO special training, though basic training is important for any pet. They are for comfort only and do not need to be task trained.
Unlike service animals, ESAs have NO public access. They are considered pets and still only allowed in public where normal pets are allowed.
ESAs are allowed in most housing, even in no pet housing (see below). Pet deposit/fees are waived. They are also allowed to fly with their owners.
In order to get an ESA you must attain a letter/prescription from your doctor stating that you are disabled and in need of an emotional support animal.
There is no legal registration, certification, ID, or test an animal has to have to be an ESA. The websites you see online that advertise this are all scams. They are taking advantage of people who do not know the law and also giving people who just want to take their pets into public an easy way to fraud the system and fake their pet. People have registered their rocks, killer whales and other silly objects/pets to show how meaningless it really is. These sites are highly frowned upon in the service animal community. Many of these sites FALSELY claim that you can bring your ESA everywhere with you. This is not true. Your ESA does not need a vest or ID for any purpose.
An ESA can be just about any animal. There are dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, rats, snakes, etc... Know that depending on your choice of animal, housing and planes can still deny you as it may not be a reasonable accommodation. ie if my ESA is a cow.
If you own your own home or live in pet friendly housing, and have no plans to ever fly having an ESA is completely moot. It is just a pet outside of those two areas.
The ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.
The ADA ONLY relates to service animals, granting the owners/handler's rights to have their service animal accompany them.
The FHA is the Federal Housing Administration, it is a government agency that covers housing laws. The FHA relates to both service animals and emotional support animals and even considers both the same under assistance animals.
This grants us rights to have our service animal or emotional support animal in our housing, even if it is no pets housing. It also waves any pet deposit or pet fees. We are still responsible for any damage our animals do.
Our animals also need to be well behaved, no loud barking, always leashed and under our control. We must also clean up after our dogs.
In order to have our service animal or ESA with us, we first need to request reasonable accommodation. We may have to show proof of need as in a letter from our doctor stating we are under their care, we are disabled, and we are in need of a service animal/ESA.
There are some exceptions.
1.Buildings with four or fewer units where the landlord lives in one of the units.
2.Private owners who do not own more than three single family houses, do not use real estate brokers or agents, and do not use discriminatory advertisements.
3. Hotels and Motels are considered public access instead of dwellings. They are covered under the ADA & not the FHA, so service dogs are allowed but ESAs are not.
There can also be species and breed restrictions. Reasonable Accommodation, means just that. If an animal can not be reasonably kept because of its species or causes undue burden they can deny it.
This also goes for dog breed restrictions as it relates to insurance. For example if your service dog or ESA is a breed that is often denied and the insurance company would raise or deny coverage, then they may deny you. This is something to consider when choosing your breed if you rent.
Both service animals and ESAs are allowed to fly with their owners in the cabin with no charge or fees. This is not covered by the ADA but instead the ACAA (Air Carrier Access Act).
If your service animal is a PSD (psychiatric service dog) or an ESA than you need a doctors letter in order to fly. They do not always ask for it, but without this letter they CAN deny you access.
must not more than one year old
must be on the professional's letterhead
must be from a mental health professional who is currently treating you.
They can also deny certain species for safety reasons. If your animal is causing a disruption or not under your control, they can and will remove you.
Sadly alot of people fake Service Dogs and even ESAs. They selfishly want to take their pets everywhere with them and/or think it is a victim-less crime.
The truth is that it DOES actually cause great harm to the disabled who actually need them.
People often bring ill-mannered, out of control pets to public.
We are often blind to how well behaved or lack thereof our pets actually are. So we think fluffy is just being cute but they are actually causing a disruption. Barking, growling, whining, sniffing, eating, begging, jumping, pulling, etc... is disrespectful and a disturbance to the public.
This makes business want to fight against service dogs being allowed, causes real service dog teams being denied access, and causes the general public to think that service dogs are just "pets" and are not truly needed by their owners.
Can you imagine just trying to live your life and have a nice day out with your family. But instead of having a nice meal at your favorite restaurant, they refuse to allow you to enter because of your real service dog. The employees make a large embarrassing scene and it ruins your entire day. <-- this happens far too often.
Many pets are not friendly or too friendly towards other animals. Your dog pulling on the leash, lunging, whining, barking or growling at a real service dog team is rude, disrespectful and can cause serious damage to the dog and the owner.
Dog attacks, even if no one is physically harmed can cause serious mental and emotional issues in dogs.
It can also cause the service dog to be distracted so they miss an alert to their owner. Missing an alert can literally mean their owners life!
Faking a service animal makes it so much harder for legit teams. It causes businesses and the general public to see everyone as fakers and push for more restrictive laws, making it much harder for the disabled who really need service animals to get them.
It also causes an ugly backlash against legit teams. I have seen for myself how rude the public and businesses can be. A legit service dog team will be illegally kicked from a business. When they push the issue and the media finds out, the business has attacked them calling them a faker. The public jumps on board saying that no one needs a service dog, that they are a faker, that they do not "look or seem" disabled (which is just another slap in the face for someone disabled), people have even been threatened and attacked online over this!
Would you park in a disabled parking spot?
Would you fake being in a wheel chair?
I also often see people giving support and acknowledgement to veterans. But many veterans suffer from PTSD and are in need of service dogs. Faking is not only disrespectful to them but actually hurting them!
Faking for housing...
I often see see posts from people saying how they have to get rid of their beloved pet because they are moving into no pet housing or their landlord found out about the pet they were not supposed to have. And every time someone will speak up and say just make it a service dog/ESA and you can keep it!!
NO! Stop right there! An ESA or Service Dog is not a free pet ticket.
Again this also hurts the disabled who truly need them. It causes alot of landlords to be very frustrated and hesitant towards legit service dog/ESA teams. Perhaps even turning them down for housing "for other reasons" just because they are sick of fakers or think they are a faker.
Is it ethical? NO.
It is selfish and disrespectful to fake being disabled just to keep a pet.
How does this relate to rats?
Ok so you may ask, "Can my pet rat be a service animal?"
1. Are you legally disabled and in need of a service animal to perform tasks that relate to your disability, remembering that comfort/love/support/just being their is not considered a legit task?
2. Do you live in one of the very few states that allow animals other than a dog or miniature horse to be a service animal?
3. In what way can a rat be task trained to help your disability, keeping in mind that comfort or just being there does not count?
IMHO, the answer is NO, rats should not be service animals.
Rats are incredibly intelligent. But I have a good understanding of most tasks that can be trained for disabilities and I can not see a rat being able to do any of them besides possibly fetching items but their size would seriously limit this ability.
"Can my rat become an ESA (emotional support animal)?"
1. Are you legally disabled and in need of comfort from a pet?
Yes! Rats can make lovely ESAs.
But things to keep in mind:
Rats should always be kept in groups and this may cause issues with some housing and their view of reasonable accommodation. I have seen this actually happen quite a few times, often in dorms. Where the housing does not want to allow multiple rats. It can be a fight and should be considered. In housing you have to prove that it is reasonable accommodation for them to allow it, and why does one need multiple ESAs? It can often be seen as faking to just allow your pets and they will want to fight it. Not always, but it is something to consider. They do not have to allow multiple ESAs.
Attempting to fly with rats, even as an ESA could be troublesome to convince the airline to allow them. Again it has to be reasonable for them and some may try to say it is unsafe. Some people want to be like no all ESAs are always allowed! But an ESA can be any animal... could I fly with an ESA cow? lol. While that is a bit absurd, it still has to follow safety concerns and rules the airline outlines.
Remember ESAs have no public access. You can not take them shopping with you, you can not take them out to dinner, or in any public place that does not allow pets.
How do I know if I am disabled? Well I'd first discuss it with your doctor. But in general just as the definition by the ADA says- are you limited in your daily life activities? Also remember just because one person is disabled by something, doesn't mean having the same diagnosis means you are as well.
If you are disabled and in need of an ESA and would like your rat or other pet to become one, the first thing you need to do is talk to your doctor or therapist. Have them confirm you are disabled and discuss that you feel the need for an ESA. If they agree, you will want them to write a letter for you.
An example letter that I have used:
(On your doctors letterhead)
My name & address
To whom it may concern,
(your name) is a patient under my care. I am intimately familiar with her/his medical history and the functional limitations imposed by their disability. She/he meets the definition of disabled under the Americans with Disability Act, Fair Housing Act, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Due to her/his disability, (your name) has certain limitations. In order to alleviate these difficulties, and to enhance her ability to live independently, I support (your name)'s decision to obtain and keep an emotional support animal. An emotional support animal will help to mitigate her/his disability, improve independence and quality of life.
Please allow (your name) to be accompanied by her emotional support animal in the cabin of the aircraft, in accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act (49 U.S.C. 41705 and 14 C.F.R. 382).
If you have any further questions, please feel free to call me at my office number.
(your doctor's signature)
Have any questions about service animals or ESAs?
Want advice/help on getting a service animal or ESA?
I would be happy to answer any questions I can or try to point you in the right direction. Leave a comment or reach me under contact me link!