ANGELES — Your sidekick is loyal. Clever. A great
comfort to you and others. But does that mean your
animal companion deserves access in public places that
other people’s pets don’t get?
The law is murky and the answer depends heavily on your
animal’s skills, your frailties and your conscience.
good news for your furry friend is that over the last
few decades, legions of people and institutions
worldwide have awakened to the many ways animals can
help people, even without elaborate training. So now
governments and businesses increasingly sort companion
animals into several categories.
greatest latitude is given to the trained service dogs
that can help people cope with blindness, Parkinson’s
and other challenges. But many hospitals, nursing homes
and schools now also welcome therapy animals, which
receive less training but nevertheless offer comfort and
distraction when volunteer owners bring them around.
a typical Southern California weekday, you may find
Gordon, a 173-pound Newfoundland dog, strolling the
halls of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. A 25-pound
cat named Tank pays similar visits through a charity
called Love on 4 Paws.
Malibu, Calif., five miniature horses (about 28 inches
high at the shoulder) stand ready to comfort sick and
traumatized children and adults through Gentle Carousel,
a Florida-based charity.
there’s another creature category, and it has started
many an argument in recent years: the emotional support
animal (ESA). These animals usually don’t have
elaborate training or ties to an institution. But they
are credited with calming their owners, who take them
into public spaces where conventional pets may be banned
on companion animals of all kinds are hard to come by,
but a JetBlue spokesman said more than 25,000 of its
passengers boarded with animals in the first 11 months
of 2014. That was 11 percent more than all of 2013.
to airlines, hotels and government agencies, many pet
owners are describing their animals as ESAs. Some carry
letters from licensed health professionals attesting
that they suffer mental or psychological disabilities
that are eased when their pets are present. This, said
Lisa Lange, Los Angeles-based senior vice president for
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, "is a
sign of how people regard animals today. They see them
more as individuals or family members."
who work with animals, however, see the ESA situation as
a growing problem because of the pet owners who fib
about their infirmities (or stretch the truth) to get
their pets better access. "It’s not right,"
said Nikki Reagan of Pacific Palisades, who is known in
local hospitals as the owner of Tank the therapy cat.
Animals can do wonders for people, Reagan said, but too
many pet owners are gaming the system.
companies sell ESA evaluations, letters, registration
cards and other accessories on the Web, sometimes
requiring telephone interviews, sometimes operating on
the honor system. But there is no federally recognized
registry for any kind of companion animals (service,
therapy or emotional support), so consumers should
expect no guarantees from these vendors.
fact, federal laws are conflicted when it comes to ESAs.
Some, including the landmark Americans With Disabilities
Act, give no extra privileges to people with ESAs. Yet
other federal laws do, which is why airlines see so many
public can call the federally funded Pacific ADA Center
in Oakland (;
 949-4232) for guidance on how the laws affect them
and their animals. But here are some general guidelines
dogs are generally permitted in any public place that
dogs get no particular perks outside the schools and
hospitals where they work, except for miniature horses.
Amtrak and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation
Authority (Metro), ESAs are treated like conventional
pets. That means they’re banned on Amtrak except for
certain routes in Illinois. On Metro trains and buses,
they’re permitted in carriers so long as they don’t
require their own seat.
federal Air Carrier Access Act, on the other hand,
allows ESAs to fly in the passenger cabin on commercial
flights at no extra charge, usually on the passenger’s
lap or in a carrier under the seat. The federal Fair
Housing Act permits ESAs in condos or apartments that
ban pets. That law doesn’t cover hotels, but many
upscale lodgings accept ESAs, including some that ban
for the Americans With Disabilities Act, the U.S.
Justice Department decided in 2011 that it should apply
only to disabled people accompanied by service dogs and,
"where reasonable," miniature horses.
under the ADA, businesses can ask only two questions
when trying to determine whether an animal is truly a
service dog: Is it required because of a disability?
What work or task has it been trained to perform?
such complexity, many businesses have decided to just
say yes to ESAs.
all that, said Kate Buhrmaster, project leader for the
therapy dog program at Children’s Hospital Los
Angeles, she’s not surprised by what she sees as a
proliferation of dogs bearing ESA credentials.
she added, "We tell all our volunteers that their
dogs have no special privileges outside of the
Garcia-Bengochea, a former middle-school principal who
now is educational director of Gentle Carousel, takes a
similar approach with her organization’s 24 miniature
horses, which typically weigh about 70 pounds.
horses do most of their traveling by land. But when air
travel is necessary, Garcia-Bengochea said, they don‘t
fly on commercial aircraft. "They hitch rides with
private pilot planes," she said.