Pediatric Providers and the Law: Service and Support Animals

Michelle Terry, MD, FAAP
AAP Committee on Medical Liability and Risk Management
Clinical Professor, Department of Pediatrics
University of Washington

Your office staff has received a call from a parent of one of your patients requesting a ‘doctor’s note’ to allow the child’s animal to accompany the family in the cabin on an airline flight.

A parent is upset because his child is allergic to dogs and there is a dog in your waiting room accompanying another patient.

You are solicited to contribute to an online fundraiser to support a family in acquiring a dog for a child with a medical disorder.

Since animals seem to be welcome in more places nowadays, is it ever ok to restrict an animal from a public space? What is a pediatrician to do in these circumstances?   How does a medical provider determine if an animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal?  Is it ok to ask the animal’s owner to clarify? It is a very confusing topic!

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act, (ADA) requires places of “public accommodation” that would not otherwise permit animals on the premises to allow service animals.

In Washington state, RCW 49.60.040 says

(25) “Service animal” means any dog or miniature horse, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by the service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Several examples are given in the statute.

Also, RCW 49.60.214 says It shall be a civil infraction for any person to misrepresent an animal as a service animal. A violation of this section occurs when a person:

  • Expressly or impliedly represents that an animal is a service animal as defined in RCW 49.60.040 for the purpose of securing the rights or privileges afforded disabled persons accompanied by service animals set forth in state or federal law.

Although many people endorse emotional support animals to aid in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other conditions by providing companionship and comfort to the animal’s owner, these animals do not receive specialized training to aid the owner with skilled tasks. These animals are not considered service animals by the ADA or WA state laws and are not protected by the laws outlined for service animals.  A service animal must be trained to perform a specific task to aid a person with a medical condition.  However, in Washington state there are no legal requirements for service animals to be specially certified, or for handlers to have proof of service animal status by certification. In addition, Washington state law does not address a requirement of documentation or identification, including unique dog tags, regarding identification of service animals.

While asking about the nature or extent of a person’s disability is prohibited, under the WA state  law, a business may ask if an animal is required due to a disability and inquire what work or task the animal has been trained to perform. The law does not allow a business to require documentation that the service animal has been trained for a particular task, nor may the business require the animal to demonstrate its training.