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Are you protected from dangerous emotional support animals?

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An emotional support dog bit a 5-year-old girl who tried to pet it at the airport in 2017. The incident sparked a $1.1 million law suit and left the girl's face permanently scarred. In 2018, United Airlines wouldn't let a woman and her emotional support peacock on a flight.

While emotional support animals (ESAs) can help their owners lead normal lives, the legal system is far behind on the subject. That's because emotional support animals are often confused with service animals. This confusion puts bystanders and pet owners at risk.

What laws protect service dogs in California?

Many people with disabilities have service dogs. Service dogs are specifically trained to help people with low vision, low mobility, seizures, allergies or PTSD. They have legal protections under federal law. However, ESAs are not service dogs and are not entitled to the same legal protections.

California's laws protecting people with disabilities are broader than federal regulations. People with mental disabilities that limit major life activities can qualify for an ESA in California but not necessarily in other states.

In California, there are several laws to protect the service dogs of people with disabilities, including:

  • The Unruh Civil Rights Act
  • The California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA)
  • The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
  • Federal disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

However, these laws do not necessarily protect ESAs. Unless you know these laws inside and out, you leave yourself open for injuries and expensive lawsuits.

What laws protect ESAs in California?

In 2016, the California legislature amended service dog laws to protect ESAs in rental and housing matters. Instead of providing clarity to this murky situation, it only made things worse.

This bill states: "That so-called 'support,' 'companion,' or 'emotional support' animals are not clearly defined in law, and their appropriate use in the context of rental housing requires clarification."

Until ESAs must undergo the same training and have the same qualifications as service dogs, people will continue to bring potentially dangerous animals into public spaces. These confusing laws fall far short of today's needs and could leave you liable for injuries and property damage.

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