July 09, 2014
Physicians are asked to accommodate service dogs in their offices with increasing frequency. The law generally requires a place of public accommodation, like a physician's office, to permit service dogs where customers would normally be allowed so long as providing the accommodation is reasonable and necessary. However, what constitutes a service dog is not always obvious as many people also have companion animals or emotional support animals they wish to bring.
The law does not require companion animals to be accommodated in the same way as service animals. To help distinguish, a service animal must be one that is individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. Although service animals are required to have identification tags identifying them as service animals, the law does not require a service animal to have completed a certain requisite training or examination.
A person with a mental disability may have either a psychiatric service animal or a companion animal. A psychiatric service animal must be accommodated by law, whereas the companion animal need not be. To qualify as a psychiatric service animal, the animal must not only recognize a problem, but must be trained to respond to that problem.
To determine whether an animal is truly a service animal, physicians may ask what task the animal is trained to perform and whether it is required for a disability. But physicians should avoid asking about the nature and extent of the person's disability and may not request further documentation of the dog's certification or training. Determining whether an animal is truly a service animal can be a blurry line. Physicians should exercise extreme caution and consult with a personal attorney or their professional liability carriers where appropriate.
To learn more about the intricacies of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the accommodation of service animals see CMA On-Call document #6002, "Disabled Patients: Health Care Services."
This document, as well as the rest of the California Medical Association's online health law library, is available free to members in CMA's online resource library. Nonmembers can purchase documents for $2 per page.
Contact: CMA Legal Information Line, (800) 786-4262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.