Many people chuckled when they read the news story about the woman who attempted to bring her “emotional support squirrel” on a Frontier Airlines Flight early in October. However, it is hard not to notice the proliferation of “emotional support animals” — usually dogs or cats, but sometimes turkeys or even spiders. As an employer, what are your obligations when an employee tells you they need to bring an animal to work? Well, as is the case in most employment law questions, it depends.

Service Animals

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is one that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. The most obvious example is a “seeing eye” dog for a blind person, but other examples may include a dog that assists someone in a wheelchair or a dog that is trained to notice when someone is about to have a seizure. The ADA limits service animals to dogs and, under certain circumstances, miniature horses. Importantly, for an animal to qualify, the work or task the animal performs must be directly related to the person’s disability. Animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not automatically qualify as service animals under the ADA. An employee can seek to have a service animal in the workplace as a reasonable accommodation. If an employee asks to bring a service animal to work, the employer should follow the regular interactive process. Usually, if the employee has a disability serious enough to require a service animal, the request for one is reasonable, absent any safety or public health concerns.

Emotional Support Animals

The ADA provides no definition of an “emotional support animal.” In many circumstances, these animals are not trained in any specific task, but instead provide “comfort” or emotional support to someone who may have a mental health issue. In some cases, a doctor may state that the animal is necessary for an individual’s mental stability. Emotional support animals are not limited to dogs or miniature horses — primarily because (unlike service animals) the federal law does not provide a definition. Does this mean you can ban emotional support animals from your workplace? Not necessarily. For example, what if an employee brings documentation that he or she suffers from PTSD and a physician states that an emotional support animal will help provide mental stability. If that employee requests an accommodation, you need to treat it like any other similar ADA request. However, unlike a service animal, there may be more room for an employer to suggest other, less burdensome accommodations. For example, instead of the emotional support animal, an employer could offer additional breaks, work from home, etc. It is important to note that unlike a service animal, emotional support animals do not enjoy the same type of endorsement under the ADA.