Everyone gets by with a little help from their friends, and those of the four-legged variety are no exception. People are increasingly seeking emotional and mental support from animals, but this doesn’t mean that people are becoming more knowledgeable about the laws surrounding these support animals. This article takes a deeper look at support animals (or companion animals, as they’re known in North Dakota), their duties, and the laws surrounding them in the Peace Garden State.
How North Dakota Defines Companion Animals
Another name for a companion animal is an emotional support animal (ESA). For the sake of clarity, we will use the term ‘companion animal’ when talking about ESAs in North Dakota. Even though companion animals are often conflated with service animals, there are some key differences between the two.
For starters, the North Dakota Century Code defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal trained to do work, perform tasks, or provide assistance for an individual with a disability.” This can include hearing dogs, seeing-eye dogs, medical assistance dogs, or medical alert dogs. Service animals are specially trained to perform specific tasks that their owners are unable to perform themselves.
Companion animals, on the other hand, provide emotional comfort and support to those who need it, including veterans with PTSD. Companion animals receive no special training to provide their owners this kind of support. They do, however, need to be a part of a comprehensive mental health treatment plan created by your mental health care provider in order for you to legally own them and bring them into spaces protected by federal law.
So what animals qualify as companion animals?
While there are strict definitions as to what a service animal is and does, this is not the case for companion animals. For comparison, service animals usually fall into three categories: psychiatric service animals, allergen alert animals, and seizure alert animals.
Psychiatric service animals help their owners manage their mental or emotional difficulties by comforting them during anxiety or panic attacks, stopping self-harming behaviors, checking for intruders, or reminding their owners to take their medication. Allergen alert service animals let their owners know which foods could be potentially dangerous and/or life-threatening. Last but not least, seizure alert service animals inform their owners of oncoming seizures and may protect them during a seizure.
Of course, these service animals receive extensive, highly-specialized training to perform all these duties.
Companion animals are there to provide their owners with a general sense of safety, companionship, and/or emotional comfort and support. Because this definition of a companion animal’s duties is so broad, they don’t enjoy the same, federally-protected rights as service animals. They do, however, have some important rights with regards to housing and air travel.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects disabled individuals against discrimination from landlords. This means the landlords are legally required to accommodate disabled individuals’ requests, provided that these accommodation requests are reasonable. The denial of an individual’s request for a companion animal to live with them would violate this provision of the FHA.
Additionally, landlords cannot charge individuals with companion animals the standard ‘pet fee,’ which tenants are expected to pay in exchange for keeping a pet in their apartment. The only time a person may have to pay for their companion animal is if they damage the apartment or house.
To have your ESA live with you without pet fees or in a non-pet space, you need to show a valid ESA letter – and nothing more. A letter can only be provided by a licensed mental health professional or doctor. If you can provide this letter, and it doesn’t cause an unreasonable financial burden on the landlord, then they must accommodate you. Bear in mind your animal must still be well behaved, quiet, and not cause a nuisance for you to continue to enjoy these rights.
Thinking about heading to college? You can bring your companion animal there, too, as the FHA’s provisions extend to college dormitories. However, classrooms or other non-pet-friendly public spaces are prohibited for companion animals, so you’ll only be allowed to keep them in your dorm or living quarters.
If you have any doubts about a college or university’s companion animal policies, call ahead or visit their website to learn what the procedures are for bringing a companion animal into your campus dorm. You’ll need to have your official companion animal letter on hand so you can prove to the school that your request is legitimate.
Did you know you can bring your companion animal on a plane with you? The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a federal law that protects disabled individuals against discrimination for their disability. This protection includes a person’s right to a companion animal on the plane. Like housing laws, though, there are certain requirements you’ll have to meet before you can do so.
First, you’ll need to provide the airline carrier with documentation proving your condition and need for a companion animal. This usually takes the form of that trusty, official companion animal letter that your mental health care provider can write and sign for you.
You must also notify the airline 48 hours or more in advance that you’ll be traveling with a companion animal and fill out the paperwork they provide so that you can make sure you adhere to all their policies and procedures and board the plane without a hitch. If you’re curious about how to get one of these companion animal letters and what the registration process is like, check out the U.S. Service Animal registration process.
Keep in mind, though, that if your companion animal is aggressive, noisy, or otherwise disruptive, then the airline carrier is within its right to prohibit it from boarding the plane. Larger companion animals, such as miniature horses, may also be refused to board the plane simply because there’s not enough space for them.
The American Disability Act (ADA) states that employers must provide their disabled employees with “reasonable accommodation,” which includes service dogs. However, the ADA does not require your employer to accommodate your companion animal at work, and the decision is fully at their discretion.
Reasons for your employer’s refusal to accommodate your requests may be that your employer is uncertain how your companion animal will specifically help you perform your job better or alleviate the symptoms of your condition. This doubt may be bolstered by the fact that companion animals receive no special training on how to recognize and respond to the symptoms of your condition. If your companion animal can perform specific tasks related to alleviating these symptoms, such as calming you down during an anxiety attack or reminding you to take your medication, then your employer is required to accommodate your requests under federal law.
It’s best to speak with your employer directly about your concerns. It may help you a lot to show them your official companion animal letter written and signed by your mental health care provider, as this will legitimize your case. Your employer is allowed to ask you what kind of training your companion animal has received, but federal law prohibits them from asking you to provide a demonstration of this training.
Public Accommodation Laws
How the ADA defines ‘public accommodations’ is simultaneously broad and specific. Generally, this includes public spaces like schools, parks, gyms, zoos, stores, theaters, and even homeless shelters. The state of North Dakota also allows you to bring your companion animal onto public transportation, into healthcare facilities, restaurants, shops, offices, hotels, arenas, hospitals, service establishments, and any other public spaces or areas. However, owners of these premises are at liberty to bar your animal from entering if they choose to.
Both the ADA and the state of North Dakota prohibit public accommodations from charging you extra fees to keep your companion animal with you. Similar to housing laws, though, you may be subject to extra fees if your companion animal damages the public space or area. Similar to travel laws, a public accommodation may prohibit your companion animal from entering the premises if they display aggressive, noisy, or otherwise disruptive behavior. It may also be prohibited if you’re unable to control your animal or if it isn’t housebroken.
An Overview of a Companion Animal Letter
As we mentioned earlier, you must obtain a companion animal letter in order to be protected by these federal anti-discrimination law. Moreover, a licensed mental health care provider must write and sign this letter in order to validate it.
While it may be tempting to go through a website that provides these letters without an initial meeting with a health care provider, it’s best to do things the right way, as the “certificates” or “registrations” these websites offer do not offer any legal protection. A mental health care provider is qualified to assess your condition and determine whether you need a companion animal, but you’ll also never have to worry about the legitimacy of the letter they’ll provide you.
How to Get a Companion Animal Letter in North Dakota
If you’re thinking of getting a companion animal to alleviate your mental or emotional distress, you’ll be happy to know that you learn more about the registration process and even complete it on our website. All you have to do is fill out our registration forms, and then you will schedule a consultation with a licensed mental health care provider who will assess your symptoms and circumstances, and determine whether a companion animal will benefit you and your situation. If your evaluation is successful, then you’ll receive your companion animal letter in the mail so you can start enjoying the benefits of having a companion animal.