Cats, Dogs, Peacocks, and Mice – Accommodating Disabilities and Assistance Animals

We all love and indulge our pets. My cats have “contributed” to my articles by walking across my keyboard as I work. I was less thrilled with the cats when one left a dead mouse as a present on my stairs. 

A recent Kennedy Center audience might have appreciated my cats’ hunting skills.  In addition to music from the National Symphony Orchestra, “entertainment” was provided by a mouse in the concert hall.[1]

For some people, however, their animals are not pets. Those animals provide important services or emotional support to their humans. Recognizing the importance of service animals, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires places of public accommodation to accommodate disabled individuals’ service animals.

The ADA does not require accommodation for emotional support animals, but other laws may. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires that landlords allow emotional support animals, as well as service animals. And, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires, with limitations, that airlines accommodate emotional support animals.[2] Nevertheless, recent news articles have questioned whether certain animals, including a pig[3] a turkey[4], and a peacock[5] should be allowed on aircraft.

The aircraft situations may only be fun reading for some, but the legal requirements regarding assistance animals are a serious matter. Business and real estate owners need to be aware of how the ADA and other laws regarding assistance animals impact their businesses so that they can provide required accommodations to disabled individuals.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The ADA defines "service animal" narrowly.  Only dogs (and under some circumstances miniature horses) can be service animals. Further, under the ADA, service animals must be trained to do work or perform tasks for a disabled individual. ADA regulations exclude emotional support animals, even if they are dogs.

The ADA requires that service animals be allowed in areas of public accommodation. That means that apartment leasing offices and businesses open to the public, including restaurants, hotels, doctor’s offices, stores, schools, etc. must allow service animals into any area where members of the public generally are allowed.

Service animals may be excluded from an area of public accommodation only under the following circumstances:

  • The handler cannot or does not control the service animal
  • The service animal is not housebroken
  • The service animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated acceptably through a reasonable modification of practices or procedures

Whether a service animal is a direct threat must be based upon the specific animal in question, not on speculation or upon experience with other animals.

Fair Housing Act Requirements

Most residential landlords must comply with the FHA. Multifamily properties that receive financial support from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also much comply HUD regulations, which are similar to the FHA.  Some state and local governments have similar laws which apply to multifamily properties in their jurisdictions.

The FHA requires that a landlord provide reasonable accommodations to disabled individuals who use assistance animals. These laws supersede any “no pets” requirements otherwise imposed by the landlord. Landlords may not charge a pet fee or deposit for service or emotional support animals. However, tenants are responsible for damage caused by their assistance animals.

Landlords who receive a request for an accommodation by allowing an assistance animal should evaluate the request using the following considerations:

  • Whether the tenant has a disability (defined as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities)
  • Does the animal work or perform tasks, provide assistance or services, or provide emotional support to the disabled individual?
  • Do the animal’s services help one or more of the symptoms or effects of the disabled individual’s disability?

If an individual’s disability is not visible, landlords may ask the disabled individual for documentation of their disability and need for an assistance animal. Likewise, if the disability is apparent but the need for an assistance animal is not, the landlord may ask for documentation supporting the need for the assistance animal.

For instance, a landlord may request documentation from an individual with a mental disability who has an emotional support animal, if the disability and need for the animal are not apparent. On the other hand, a landlord probably may not ask a blind individual who has a guide dog for evidence of the disability or need for the service animal.

If the assistance animal meets the above requirements, then the landlord must allow it. There are exceptions. The landlord need not accommodate the assistance animal if:

  • The accommodation would provide an undue financial and administrative burden
  • The accommodation would fundamentally alter the nature of the landlord’s services
  • The specific assistance animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, and that threat cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.
  • The specific assistance animal would cause substantial damage to the property of others, and that damage cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.

As with the ADA, whether an assistance animal poses a direct threat or would cause substantial damage must be based upon the specific animal in question, not on speculation or upon experience with other animals.

Solving Kennedy Center’s Rodent Problem

The ADA applies to all places of public accommodation, including hotels, restaurants, and concert halls, like Kennedy Center. Trained service animals (defined as dogs and miniature horses) must be permitted in those venues.

The same is not true of emotional support animals. Emotional service animals are covered under the ACAA, FHA and HUD regulations, but not the ADA.  The ACAA’s scope, however, is limited to airlines, and the FHA and HUD regulations limit their application to housing.

Therefore, places of public accommodation, including concert halls, are not required under federal law to allow emotional support animals. Under current law, it seems disabled individuals with emotional support animals may need to enjoy their music at home, where under the FHA, they can have their animals by their sides.

Since the mouse-catching service my cats provide has nothing to do with any disability, no law requires that they be allowed on an airplane, in a concert hall, or even in any rental housing. Therefore, Kennedy Center will need to find another way to rid itself of its mouse problem.


© 2018 by Elizabeth A. Whitman

DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice to any person. No one should take any action regarding the information contained in this blog without first seeking the advice of an attorney. Neither reading this blog nor communication with Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC or Elizabeth A. Whitman creates an attorney-client relationship. No attorney-client relationship will exist with Whitman Legal Solutions, LLC or any attorney affiliated with it unless and until a written contract is signed by all parties and any conditions in such contract are fully satisfied.


[1] Peggy McGlone, “Eeeek! (Shhhh!) A mouse upstages the National Symphony Orchestra”, The Washington Post (January 12, 2018)

[2] The ACAA provides that airlines are NEVER required to accept snakes or other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, or spiders. Also, airlines may exclude animals that are too large to be in the cabin, pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or cause a significant disruption. Airlines also may exclude assistance animals that will be prohibited from entering the country to which the flight is going

[3] Kristin Hugo, ‘Emotional Support’ Pig Kicked Off Plane: Why are These Animals Allowed on Board?, Newsweek (November 16, 2017).

[4] A. Pawlowski, Pig on a plane? The era of emotional support animals on flights may be ending, Today (September 21, 2016).

[5] Lindsey Bever and Eli Rosenberg, United changed its policy for emotional-support animals. That peacock still can’t board. The Washington Post (February 1, 2018).