A service animal is an unclear term in the U.S. because different parts of the law use different terms to describe animals that help their owners by providing either a necessary or useful service. Some of the types of things a service or support animal may perform:
- A necessary function to help a person with a disability – for example, a seeing-eye dog
- A function that can provide health or safety for it’s owner – for example, detecting alergins
- Provides calming or emotional care for it’s owner – for example, PTSD assistance
- Provides comfort for it’s owner
- Or even an animal who is being trained to do one or more of these things
The laws provide special exceptions to owners of animals who provide some of these functions. However, which types of exceptions are allowed can vary depending on the context. Generally, an animal, most often a dog, but sometimes a small horse, who provides necessary assistance to a person with a disability is generally always permitted.
But the other functions may not qualify as an exception for the owner to bring the animal into a certain environment. In particular, animals that provide comfort are the least likely to receive an exception.
Some animal owners will lie about the function the animal provides in order to be granted the legal exception. This works because employers, landlords, and some other gatekeepers are not allowed to ask details about the disability the animal assists with. When asked if the animal has been trained to provide a necessary function, an owner may misrepresent the animal’s purpose.
In many states, such misrepresentation is considered fraud and may expose the owner making the misrepresentation criminally liable. Some of the states that have laws about service animal fraud are including California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Iowa.
Yes, Iowa makes it illegal to misrepresent whether an animal is a service animal or not. This is defined in Iowa Code 216C.11, which states, “A person who intentionally misrepresents an animal as a service animal or a service-animal-in-training is, upon conviction, guilty [of a misdemeanor].”
“Misrepresentation” is proven by all of the following being true:
- the owner/handler of the animal gives a misrepresentation that the animal is a service animal or service animal in training – this does not mean they verbally say it, but if they do some action that leads others to believe it, that is misrepresentation;
- The person was given verbal or written warning that it is illegal to misrepresent an animal as a service animal or service animal in training;
- The person knows that the animal is not a service animal or service animal in training.
A sign on an entrance or in a lease says that pets are not allowed except for service animals trained to assist persons with disabilities. The sign or lease also says, “It is a violation of Iowa law to intentionally mis-represent an animal as a service animal.” A person with a pet who provides comfort but that has not been trained to provide a service to assist with a disability places a vest on their animal that says “Service Animal.” Upon entering the location or signing the lease they are asked if the animal provides a service to assist with a disability” and the owner says “yes.” The owner knows this to be untrue. This is a violation of the law.
This is a growing issue and causes several problems:
- Untrained or poorly trained animals causing property damage
- Animals injuring humans or service animals
- Animals barking or disrupting an environment
- Animals contaminating areas that must be kept clean or sterile
- Exposure to pet allergens such as dog dander
This is a difficult balancing act for law makers because trained service animals provide a necessary function that allows people with certain disabilities to have a more normal and fulfilling life. Unfortunately, there are many businesses that provide fraudulent training or certificates to pet owners that misrepresent the function of an animal. This misrepresentation puts a burden on facilities and landlords who want to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities.
If you are a landlord and have questions about writing lease agreements that anticipate pet ownership or if you have legal questions about landlord rights, reach out to our team of business and legal experts for support.