Service Animals and Healthcare: How to Respond

These days it’s increasingly common to have animals in the waiting rooms – no, I’m not talking about rambunctious little kids, I mean live, panting, furry creatures.

As part of the growing availability of service dogs, cats, and a variety of other therapy animals, many hospitals across the nation are seeing an increase of four-legged companions in healthcare facilities.

Real Treatment, Real Animals

They’re called service, therapy, or emotional support animals (ESAs), and the importance of these animals is immeasurable. Whether it’s an upright German shepherd poised to protect, or a calm and caring golden retriever dedicated to supporting its master, service dogs are becoming popular visitors to many businesses – especially those in healthcare.

Service Animals

Dogs must be trained individually before they are given to people with disabilities.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are allowed to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of someone with a disability. This can include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or some other mental handicap that can be assisted by the presence of a highly trained animal.

In January of 2016, headlines broke with one of the more uncommon ESA species – a turkey – aboard a delta airlines flight. According to the ADA and Fair Housing act, as well as the Federal Air Carrier Access Act, service animals are more than welcomed to take to the skies with their humans, in addition to being able to enter a variety of buildings and institutions.

Legal Issues and How to Respond

Yet despite the clarity of legal distinctions, it’s not always obvious when an animal is a bonafide assistant or just a glorified pet. Since ESAs are very common and a fully legitimate means of assisting disabled people, finding the right way to address the animal in your waiting room can be difficult – particularly when it comes to legality.

Service dogs must be highly trained, but since there isn’t any “official” certification required and anyone can buy a service-dog vest online, there’s no sure-fire way to determine the animal’s legitimacy. Healthcare workers are left with only two main questions available to them:


Is that animal required because of a disability,” and what work or task has that animal been trained to perform?

service animals

Service dogs can provide people with the freedom to live their lives… and a furry friend as an added bonus!


If the owner can present extensive documentation and answer either of these questions without hesitation, it’s safe to assume that the animal is indeed more than a family pet.

Although there is always the possibility that you’re allowing an under-qualified animal into your facility, the risk of violating someone’s civil rights by denying their service dog access can outweigh the relatively harmless presence of someone’s pet.

Holly Stiles, an attorney with the Disability Rights North Carolina contends that if a dog is well groomed, behaved, and seemingly healthy, then it’s probably meant to be there. However, beyond the proper qualifications, the presence of service animals can also affect other patients and employees.


Sniffing out Service Animal Imposters

Parents with small children, people with allergies, or even those who are fearful of dogs and other animals can have unpredictable reactions to ESAs – this means your staff has to be ready to address these situations appropriately. Talking about what actions to take is the first step in order to avoid excessive violations or even legal trouble. Remembering the two questions that are allowed can be a good place to start, as well as establishing which staff members feel the most comfortable addressing the animals and their owners.

Creating a simple sign that says something to the effect of “service-dogs only, please,” can also be a buffer against the unnecessary presence of a pet. However, if you are concerned about how people might react to a strange animal in the office, it may be appropriate to ask the patient to schedule appointments at the beginning or end of the day to avoid any complaints.

service animals

Therapy-animals change lives, so learning to identify them from family pets is a necessity.

Overall, if a dog is wandering around, sniffing other patients, or barking when unprovoked, it’s not likely that he’s an actually service animal. That being said, even service animals can be denied access to a facility if their presence “creates a direct threat to other persons or a fundamental alteration to the nature of services,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

What’s most unfortunate is that people in need of actual service animals often experience backlash as a result of a few rule breakers. However, as long as you and your staff follow the ADA’s rules on how to address the situation, it should be possible to keep everyone’s tails wagging.

Author: Connor Smith

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