Service Animals in the Medical Practice
Brandy Boone, JD, Director, Education & Client Guidance, Professional Insurance
Animals are rarely seen in physician offices, so it may take patients and staff by surprise when a person walks in with an animal. Many physicians and their staff actively discourage the presence of animals within the office for cleanliness and hygiene reasons—as well as the potential safety threat from an uncontrollable animal. However, medical practices that prohibit all animals from their premises under any circumstances risk facing allegations that they have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Since medical offices or clinics are defined as “places of public accommodation” by Title III of the ADA, they are prohibited from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability; they must make policy, practice, and procedure accommodations for service animals of people with disabilities.1
The U.S. Department of Justice defines a service animal under the ADA as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability—although as of 2010, miniature horses have been included as an exception to dogs in that definition.2 The Department of Justice has also issued guidance on the use of service animals in places of public accommodation, which includes the following elements:
- It is only permissible to ask the handler whether the animal is required for a disability and what tasks the animal has been trained to perform. Inquiries about the individual’s disability or the animal’s certification are prohibited.3
- Neither allergies nor fear of dogs are considered legitimate or valid reasons for denying services or access to premises to individuals using service animals.
- A handler of a service animal may only be asked to remove the animal from the premises for two reasons: (1) the handler takes no action to attempt to manage an out of control animal or (2) the animal is not housebroken.4
In 2011, a physician’s office in Florida reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice following a complaint; an individual stated he was treated inappropriately at the office because of his service animal. The individual in question was not asked to leave or remove his service dog from the premises. His complaint was based on comments by the office staff about the dog’s presence and inquiries about the dog’s training or certification. Under the settlement, the physician’s office was required to establish a service animal policy, provide effective notice of the new policy, retrain office staff, and pay the complainant $500.00.5
Physicians or medical office staff may access the Department of Justice’s resources on service animals at https://www.ada.gov/service_animals_2010.htm and https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.pdf.
- 42 U.S.C. § 12188, et seq.; 28 CFR § 36.104
- 42 U.S.C. § 12188, et seq.; 28 CFR § 36.104; 28 CFR § 35.136(i)
- 28 CFR § 35.136(f)
- 28 CFR § 35.136(b)