Because service animals are so important to the people they assit, they have much greater access to various venues than other animals. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically addresses service animal access issues. It was a landmark act that ensured appropriate access for these animals so that people who require them are able to take them into areas where other animals are not allowed. However, some aspects of this Act can lead to abuse of the regulations and unwanted scrutiny of "real" service animals. I was at an infection control conference recently and numerous people commented on problems they have had with people with questionable "alleged" service animals, the inability to find out whether they really are service animals, and the potential legal implications of trying to do anything to prevent them from entering certain areas.

These problems occur because of a combination of strong and vague statements in the ADA:

One problem is the definition of service animals: "Service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other species tasks."

  • The definition itself is fairly straightforward, but there is no clear indication of what "trained" entails, and no requirement for formal training or certification, nor restriction of any animal species. Based on this, I could say that my sheep are trained to do something for me and then take them into a restaurant with me.

Some other key points in the ADA:

Businesses may ask if an animal is a service animal or ask what tasks the animal has been trained to perform, but cannot require special ID cards for the animal or ask about the person’s disability.

  • This means that while businesses can ask, all someone has to do is say "yes, this is a service animal" and the conversation is done. Some people that truly need service animals are not visibly disabled and you can’t tell whether someone needs an animal by simply looking at them or talking to them. Back to my sheep example, if someone asked why I had a sheep on a leash in a restaurant, all I’d have to say if that he’s my service sheep and he’s trained to do something. Theoretically, I could walk into a crowded location with a Salmonella-spewing baby chick, adult cow or some other inappropriate animal and no one could do anything. Yes, those are extreme examples, but people like to test extremes.

A person with a disability cannot be asked to remove his service animal from the premises unless: (1) the animal is out of control and the animal’s owner does not take effective action to control it (for example, a dog that barks repeatedly during a movie) or (2) the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

  • The problem here is who defines "direct threat." This is an issue because it is subjective, yet people can be penalized if they ban an animal and a complaint is upheld. Think back to the recent example of the pet chimp that almost killed someone. It wasn’t a service animal in this case, but some people claim their monkeys are service animals. Some probably are, since some monkeys are specially trained to help the disabled (especially people with spinal cord injuries). Monkeys can be very dangerous, yet it might be hard to look at any given monkey and say it poses a "direct threat" to another person. A properly trained and temperament-tested monkey is probably low risk and justifiable. But, proper training and temperament-testing aren’t required by the ADA

Businesses that sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.

  • Public health codes are there for a reason… to protect the health of the public. Therefore, careful consideration must be taken before breaking public health rules. The risks posed by a properly trained service dog are inconsequential, and properly trained and tested animals of appropriate species absolutely should have free access. Other species have different risks and these need to be considered. All animals are not created alike.

Violators of the ADA can be required to pay money damages and penalties.

  • This is good for true violations such as someone refusing access to someone with a trained seeing-eye dog. However, it also leads to difficulties excluding high risk situations.

I’m know I’m going to get nasty emails from people with various untested, unregulated (and probably untrained) "service animals," but I think this is an important issue. The ADA provides a great framework for ensuring proper access to and by service animals. However, I don’t think it’s clear enough. Vague acts create the potential for stretching the rules and violating the spirit of the law. I’d never advocate getting rid of this Act, however I think it needs to be rethought. There is a great need for a clearer definition of what constitutes a service animal. Service animals should be specially trained, temperament-tested and certified by an independent body. If someone thinks they need a service monkey or horse, the need for that should be clear and the animal should be properly trained and scrutinized. Otherwise, it’s a pet and shouldn’t be given the same access. Problems that occur from inappropriate "alleged" service animals risk unnecessary scrutiny of, and barriers to, real service animals.

If you disagree, please comment. However, don’t just send me the typical "I have a service horse and you’re an idiot" comment that comes through periodically. Tell me why you disagree with better defining species, training and certification.