Regulation of Medicine


Service Animals & Patient Rights Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

There is often confusion around service animals and patient rights. For example, there are stark differences between emotional support animals, comfort animals and therapy dogs. The distinction between service animals and other types of support animals matters, because service animals and their handlers (patients) have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal civil rights law. Other support or therapy animals are not covered under the ADA and thus are not afforded the same rights. 

Service Animal Defined

  • “Service animal” means an animal that is trained to do work or a specific task for a person with a disability. Generally speaking, only dogs can be service animals under the ADA.
  • The service dog must be specifically trained to perform a task to fit into the ADA’s service animal definition. Examples include “guide dogs,” which help guide the blind or hearing impaired, and seizure response dogs.
  • Service animals are working animals and are not pets.

All Other Support Animals

  • Emotional support or therapy animals are not service animals and are not afforded any of the rights that service animals have under the ADA.
  • They are not service animals even if they are prescribed as a part of a treatment plan since they are not trained to perform a specific task.

Determining if an Animal is a Service Animal

  • A provider may only ask two questions to determine if an animal is a service animal.
    1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and
    2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform
  • If a person cannot identify the work or tasks the animal was trained to perform, it is likely not a service animal and has no right to enter the premises.
  • Staff cannot ask about the person’s disability, require medical documentation, require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task. This means that the animal does not need a vest, ID tag, or specific harness.

Allergies and Fear of Dogs

  • Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.

Where are Service Animals Allowed

  • Service animals can accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.
  • For example, this would include patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias or exam rooms.

Where are Service Animals Not Allowed

  • Service animals cannot be in sterile areas (e.g., operating rooms, burn units, MRI machines and certain intensive care units).
  • If admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program, service animals may be prohibited.
  • If admitting the service animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, service animals may be prohibited.

Service Animal Behavior

  • A service animal can be excluded from these public areas if it is
    • Not housebroken; or
    • Out of control and the owner has not taken effective action to control it.
  • The facility is also not responsible for caring for the animal.


For more information on this topic, please contact MagMutual at 1-800-282-4882 or to be connected to an on-call risk consultant.


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The information provided in this resource does not constitute legal, medical or any other professional advice, nor does it establish a standard of care. This resource has been created as an aid to you in your practice. The ultimate decision on how to use the information provided rests solely with you, the PolicyOwner.