Miniature Horses Coming to a Psychiatric Hospital Near You

Effective March 15, 2011, changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will expand the role of “service animals” in health care.

Service animals are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding the blind, alerting the hearing impaired, pulling wheelchairs, and alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure. Service animals are working animals, not pets.

Now, the ADA will recognize that individuals with psychiatric, intellectual, and mental disabilities may require a service animal.  These changes both define and distinguish service animals in this context from comfort or companion animals. 

The new definition reads: “Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.  The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the handler’s disability.  Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors.  The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.

In fact, if a sight-impaired individual is allergic to dogs, he or she may use a miniature horse (provided the miniature horse is house broken). As violators of ADA requirements may face money damages and penalties, following are some useful tips.

  • Businesses may inquire if an animal is in fact a service animal (including the specific tasks the animal can perform), but they cannot require any special identification for the animal, or inquire about the disability.
  • The service animal can go wherever the customer can go.
  • Businesses cannot charge an additional fee for people with accompanying service animals, nor can they be treated unfairly.
  • The only instances when a person with  a disability can be asked to remove his/her service animal from a location include: (1) the animal is out of control; or (2) the animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that individuals minimize contact with animal saliva, dander, urine, and feces. The CDC also suggests that nonhuman primates and reptiles should be avoided if possible as service animals.

Questions should be directed to ADA specialists at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.