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Service Animals and ESAs

Did you know that our society is more stressed and anxious than ever before?

Studies have shown that the simple act of petting an animal can reduce risk factors for stroke, seizure, and heart attack by lowering stress and anxiety.

Animals play a big role in our lives. In the past, animals have only been seen as household pets, but recently, service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs) have become popular choices for stress relief. However, it’s important to recognize the differences between service animals and ESAs should a request come forth asking for accommodations for their animal.

Service animals’ presence is well-documented in hospitals and schools, but many individuals are now asking for their ESAs to accompany them to work, stores, public facilities, and other facets of their daily routines. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally requires state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities. By law, you — the facility operator — must accommodate service animals and their humans.

The ADA is very specific in its definition of service animals, defining them as “dogs or miniature horses that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities”. This definition does not include therapy animals or ESAs. Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. While ESAs are beneficial for physical and mental health support, their role is more like a pet than a service animal.

To identify an animal as an ESA, the owner must request and receive a letter from a medical professional identifying their need of said animal. There is no special license or registration. A service animal is a pet that has been highly trained and has received certification through a recognized organization. They are required to be identified typically with a chest harness.

It’s important to understand what questions you, the facility operator, are allowed to ask someone about their animal when at your facility.

A person’s medical condition is protected information. You cannot ask what disability or condition the animal is needed for. However, you can ask what tasks the animal will provide. Any animal in a public facility must be harnessed or leashed by the handler.

For liability and insurance protection purposes, remember that animals are extensions of their owners. Municipalities that allow therapy animals as part of their service offerings need to communicate with their carriers to ensure that scope and course of business can be understood to define what coverage extensions could be provided. Coverage for the use of animals is not an absolute. Making reasonable accommodations for an individual’s ESA should be discussed with legal counsel and your carrier.

As always, the Astra Insurance risk management team is ready to help anyway we can. Keep your furry friends close and reach out with any questions!

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