Angels of Assisi receives many phone calls from people who are denied access to public spaces with or have questions about their assistance animals. Some people have rabbits or cats as their assistance animals, while others have dogs. The information below should help you understand where and how you can bring your assistance animals in Virginia.

What kind of assistance animal do you have?

An important distinction to understand is that there are two broad groups of assistance animals:

  1. Service Animals are defined as dogs* that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals. In some cases similarly trained miniature horses may be considered service animals.
  1. Emotional Support Animals (ESA) can be virtually any animal and offer emotional support services to their owners. Although these animals provide comfort to their owners, they do not need to be trained to behave in any particular manner.

Why is the type of assistance animal important?

Laws cover where and when assistance animals are permitted to remain with their owners. Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals are NOT treated the same in every situation. The greatest differences occur when bringing assistance animals to public spaces.

  • Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses that serve the public, such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, are prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. Among other things, these laws require businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their Service Animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.
  • The ADA covers only Service Animals, not Emotional Support Animals. Therefore, Emotional Support Animals are not automatically permitted into public spaces along with their owners.

May I bring my assistance animal to a restaurant or other public place?

It depends. The law is very clear that Service Animals are permitted into public spaces along with their owners. Additionally, facilities are not allowed to charge an additional fee of any kind for the Service Animal. Massachusetts law is clear: any blind person, or deaf or hearing handicapped person, or other physically handicapped person accompanied by a dog guide, shall be entitled to any and all accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of all public conveyances, public amusements and places of public accommodation, within the commonwealth, to which persons not accompanied by dogs are entitled.

Of course, any limitations applicable to people also apply to the Service Animal (for example, a Service Animal does not allow an 18 year old person to enter a space limited to persons above 21 years old just because she has a Service Animal). And, in the rare instance a Service Animal is a direct threat to health or safety, the animal can be denied entrance.

Emotional Support Animals are not automatically entitled to these same benefits. Public spaces are not required to allow people and their Emotional Support Animals in together.


Do I have to prove my assistance animal is required to stay with me?

The law is very clear about what business owners may ask you if they are unsure if your animal is a Service Animal. There are only two question permitted:

  1. Is the Service Animal required because of a disability?
  2. What task(s) does the Service Animal perform?

Importantly, businesses may not ask for documentation or certification that you have a Service Animal. However, if you have a cat or other non-dog or non-miniature horse, you do not have a Service Animal and therefore are not automatically entitled to enter the business – only Service Animals, which must be a dog or miniature horse, are legally allowed to enter with their owners.

May I bring my assistance animals on an airplane with me in the cabin?

The short answer is: yes, you may bring your assistance animal on the airplane with you. There are some important guidelines and distinctions to know about, though.

  • Firstly, note that the ADA and another federal law allow assistance animals on an airplane. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) provides guidance that extends beyond the ADA’s coverage which only includes Service Animals. Most importantly, the ACAA allows Emotional Support Animals to board with and remain with their owners on a flight.
  • Airlines must permit you to sit in your assigned seat with your assistance animal, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation or to comply with FAA regulations. The airline must offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to a seat location in the same class of service, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated.
  • Airlines are not permitted to charge any additional fees for an assistance animal.
  • Airlines are not required to allow unusual or exotic animals if they are too large or heavy, or pose a direct threat to others. Airlines are never required to accept snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents or spiders as service animals
  • For Emotional Support Animals only, there are additional steps that must be taken:
    • Passengers with Emotional Support Animals must present the required documentation: a letter from a mental health professional stating that the passenger has a mental health-related disability. The letter must be less than one year old, and be from a mental health professional who is currently treating the passenger.
    • You must also give US airlines 48 hours advance notice if you intend to travel with an Emotional Support Animal.
  • Airlines are required to employ Customer Resolution Professionals, and you should ask to speak to one of them if you experience difficulty with the airline.
  • The Department of Transportation operates a toll-free hotline to assist air travelers with disabilities. The hotline assists air travelers with time-sensitive disability-related issues that need to be addressed in “real time.” The hours for the hotline are 7A to 5P EST, Monday through Friday except federal holidays. Call the hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY) to obtain assistance.

What if my landlord has a “no pets” policy?

Like with air travel, there is federal law to provide coverage for assistance animals in housing situations. The Department of Housing and Urban Development released a Notice that discusses how the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the ADA intersect regarding the use of Service or Emotional Support Animals by persons with disabilities.

  • The ADA requires equal access for people with disabilities using trained Service Animals in public accommodations and government facilities. Therefore, people with Service Animals are automatically covered and their Service Animals are allowed to live with them in housing covered by the ADA (public housing).
  • According to HUD, “Under the FHA, housing providers have a further obligation [beyond the ADA] to accommodate people with disabilities who, because of their disability, require trained service dogs or other types of assistance animals to perform tasks, provide emotional support, or alleviate the effects of their disabilities.”
  • Housing providers must evaluate a request for a reasonable accommodation to possess an Assistance Animal – either a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal – in a dwelling. The housing provider must consider: (a) Does the person seeking the request have a disability? And (b) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for the assistance animal?
    • Where the answers to questions (a) and (b) are “yes,” the FHA requires the housing provider to modify or provide an exception to a “no pets” rule or policy to permit a person with a disability to live with and use an assistance animal(s) in all areas of the premises where persons are normally allowed to go, unless doing so would impose an undue financial and administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s services.
    • Read more about the definition of a disability for the purpose of housing. Federal laws define a person with a disability as “Any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.” In general, a physical or mental impairment includes hearing, mobility and visual impairments, chronic alcoholism, chronic mental illness, AIDS, AIDS Related Complex, and mental retardation that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include walking, talking, hearing, seeing, breathing, learning, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself.
  • A housing provider may not deny a reasonable accommodation request because she or he is uncertain whether or not the person seeking the accommodation has a disability or a disability-related need for an assistance animal.
    • Housing providers may ask individuals who have disabilities that are not readily apparent to submit reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for an assistance animal.

A Troubling Trend?

As the Boston Globe recently reported, there is conflict brewing between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. A fundamental reason for the tension is that Service Animals are highly trained, very expensive, and very well-behaved animals that are not pets.

When people bring untrained and badly-behaved animals to public places claiming that they are Service Animals, the resulting confusion and bad feelings reflect poorly on the real Service Animals. Therefore, when people with Service Animals seek access to places clearly covered under the law, business owners are becoming skeptical and giving such people (and their Service Animals) a hard time.

Emotional Support Animals do NOT have the same rights of access as Service Animals. Emotional Support Animals are allowed into far fewer places than Service Animals for a reason: they do not have the formal training and tested temperament to move so freely in society. ESAs provide a tremendous help to their owners, but they do not, yet, qualify as Service Animals and should not be represented as such.

*Entities covered by the ADA must modify their policies to permit miniature horses where reasonable. The regulations set out four assessment factors to assist entities in determining whether miniature horses can be accommodated in their facility. The assessment factors are (1) whether the miniature horse is housebroken; (2) whether the miniature horse is under the owner’s control; (3) whether the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight; and (4) whether the miniature horse’s presence will not compromise legitimate safety requirements necessary for safe operation of the facility