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Untangling the Rules Around Service Animals at Your Practice

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Untangling the Rules Around Service Animals at Your Practice

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Service animals

When patients or employees want to bring service animals or emotional support animals into your practice, you must tread very carefully. If you make a misstep, you could face lawsuits, regulatory agency fines and reputational damage if you violate the Americans With Disabilities Act.

On the other hand, if your emotional support animal policy is so relaxed that your practice is filled with pets, other patients and staff members could get frustrated and the number of animals could become disruptive. The only way to toe the line between compliance and policy is to know what the rules are.

Check out several key facts you must know about service animals and emotional support animals at your medical office.

Differentiate the Terms

Before you can create a policy about animals at your office, you must get a handle on what each type is defined as.

  • Pet: A domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility
  • Service animal: An animal (usually a dog) that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability
  • Psychiatric service dog: A type of Service Animal; an animal (usually a dog) that has been individually trained to help with mental health conditions
  • Emotional support animal: Any animal that provides emotional support alleviating one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability, but that is not trained to perform any specific work or task related to that disability
  • Assistance animal: A term that encompasses both service animals and emotional support animals
  • Person with a disability: A person who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more

Again, the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal is that the service animal (usually a dog) has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, while the emotional support animal has not.

Under the federal law, service animals are limited to dogs (any breed) and miniature horses, but state law may allow for other animals, such as cats and birds.

Understand What the Law Covers

Under federal law, only the Fair Housing Act requires accommodations for emotional support animals. However, when it comes to service animals, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires healthcare entities to provide accommodations to people with disabilities, which typically means accommodating their service animals.

Under state law, several states address emotional support animals, while all states typically mirror federal law when it comes to service animals.

Know What You Can Ask

If someone brings an animal into your practice, you’re allowed ask just two questions:

  • Is the animal a service animal?
  • What work is the service animal trained to perform?

Beyond that, you aren’t permitted to inquire more extensively about the animal. For instance, you can’t ask to see a certificate or registration, and you aren’t able to ask for the animal to demonstrate what it’s trained to do.

Don’t Treat the Patient Differently

If a patient comes to your practice with a service animal, you must treat them the same way you’d treat any other patient, but know that the animal’s handler is responsible for supervising and caring for the animal during the visit.

You shouldn’t pet the service animal or offer it treats, nor should you segregate the patient in a different area of the waiting room or practice.

Create a Policy

Once you know your state laws and all of the issues surrounding service animals and emotional support animals, it’s important to create an office policy that outlines what you will and won’t allow in your facilities, and what the guidelines are around animals.

Once you’ve developed your policy and had it cleared by an attorney, train staff on implementing it, share it with patients and post it on your wall or website if possible.

When patients have emotional support animals, you must be able to follow the guidelines or you could be in a world of legal trouble. Get the scoop from attorney Diana Trevley, JD, CCEP-I, CIPP/E during her 60-minute training event, Meet Emotional Support Animal Legal Requirements to Avoid Practice Nightmares. Register today!

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