Pet rights or peeves? Laws on animals in businesses differ

Mary Cornforth
Mary Cornforth

Many of us take comfort and enjoyment in our pets. By one estimate, 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet. There’s nothing quite like coming home to a happy face and wagging tail at the end of a long day at work or curling up with a furry friend and good book. The therapeutic benefits of animals are known to ease the symptoms of stress, and it’s becoming more common to see animals in the workplace because of the enjoyment they provide.

However, comfort for one person can be discomfort for another. As the number of comfort and emotional support animals has increased, so has the number of complaints about animals in businesses. While both service animals and emotional support animals are protected under Colorado law, there are distinct differences between the two. Mesa County Public Health frequently fields questions from business owners and residents about what types of animals are allowed in public places.

Service animals are protected by both federal and state laws. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on a person’s disability. The ADA requires covered entities — including state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide goods or services to the public — to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities. The use of service animals is considered a reasonable accommodation.

Service animals are highly trained to perform a specific task for a person with a disability. Their work is not always visible, as they can be trained for a variety of tasks that include detecting the onset of a seizure or recognizing low blood sugar in a person with diabetes. Service dogs are well-behaved and focused on the task at hand. They’re not allowed on seats, tables or in grocery carts. Service animals must remain on a leash or harness unless they interfere with the work being performed or the individual’s disability. If service animals aren’t leashed, individuals must maintain control through voice, signal or other methods.

An animal that provides emotional support or comfort to its owner is not considered a service animal. It’s a common misconception online registration guarantees access for emotional support animals. While it’s acknowledged emotional support animals provide therapeutic benefits to their owners, they’re not protected by law the same way as service animals. Emotional support animals aren’t allowed in legally covered entities. A state law enacted in 2017 makes it a petty offense to intentionally misrepresent an animal as a service animal or service animal in training.

The federal Fair Housing and Air Carrier Access acts include provisions allowing emotional support animals to live and fly with their owners. It’s important to note, though, registering a pet on a website doesn’t provide protection under the law in Colorado or Fair Housing or Air Carrier Access acts. This registration won’t be accepted by landlords or airlines. Documentation from a licensed medical professional is the only legal document required for emotional support animals in Colorado.

So how does a business owner or manager know if an animal is a service animal? What are they allowed to say to someone with an animal in their businesses? A covered entity, as described above, can pose two questions if the individual’s disability isn’t apparent or work provided by the service animal remains unclear: 1. Is this a service animal?
2. What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform? No other questions or requests are permitted. Owners aren’t required to provide any documentation other than a pet license.

A covered entity can only deny access to a service animal if the animal is: 1. Out of control and the owner doesn’t take steps to exert control. 2. Not housebroken. 3. Posing a threat to the health and safety of others that can’t be reduced to an acceptable level by making other reasonable accommodations.

It can be tricky for business and pet owners to understand and comply with regulations. For more information about guidelines for service animals, visit the website at
https://health.mesacounty.us/services/community/service-
animal-guidance/. Call Mesa County Animal Services at 242-4646 to pose questions or bring up concerns.

For those of us who enjoy the company of our animals, there are still many pet-friendly establishments and open spaces in Mesa County.  It’s always a good idea, though, to check before you take your pet with you. And as temperatures heat up in the Grand Valley, so do the interiors of our cars. Leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle is never a good idea, even for just a brief errand.

Taking the time to learn and follow guidelines for service animals is essential to comply with laws and avert potential conflicts and inconveniences in public spaces.