Service Animals in Emergencies

Alice Frame, MA - MDHHS Disabilities Health Unit Coordinator


Emergency responders will likely encounter service animals in their work, so it’s important to understand what service animals are, the jobs they perform and what their rights are in emergency situations.

What is a service animal?

First and foremost, a service animal is not the same as a pet. A service animal is trained to do work or perform a service to benefit an individual with a disability. These animals are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to help individuals with disabilities or medical conditions. Some types of service animals and the jobs they perform are:

In some cases, individuals may also have service miniature horses. Services horse are protected by the ADA. The same rules apply as for service dogs, provided space allows and the horse doesn’t compromise legitimate safety requirements.

A service animal is also different from a comfort or support animal. Those animals are not trained to perform specific tasks to assist individuals with disabilities. Comfort or support animals provide companionship, emotional support, or assist with depression and anxiety. They are not protected by the ADA and do not have the same rights as service animals.

Where are service animals allowed?

Individuals should be allowed to bring their service animals to any area of public or private businesses and facilities where people are allowed if the animal is housebroken and under the user’s control. This can be done with a harness or leash, or through voice and/or signal commands. If a service animal is not under control, he is no longer protected by the ADA guidelines.

What does this mean for emergencies?

When at all possible, a service animal should be allowed to remain with the handler. Emergencies are stressful for everyone but can be even more so for an individual with a disability when separated from a service animal. Response staff cannot ask to see medical documentation or service animal certification, but can ask these two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal needed for a disability?
  2. What work is the dog trained to perform?

Ambulances: If space permits, a service animal should be allowed to accompany an individual with a disability in an ambulance. However, if there is limited space in the ambulance or the animal is behaving in a way that prevents responders from working on the patient, the staff should make arrangements to transport him separately to the same location as his owner. This can be done through local police, a secondary emergency responder or other entity. Ideally, animal and user would arrive as close to the same time as possible. On arrival, the service animal should be returned back to their owner.

Hospitals and treatment centers: As a general rule, service animals must be allowed in any areas where public and patients are allowed. These areas include patient rooms, clinics, exam rooms, cafeterias and lounge spaces. However, it is appropriate to exclude service animals from areas that must remain sterile, such as operating rooms and burn units. Many hospitals and treatment centers have established service animal protocols.

Sheltering: Service animals must be allowed in any shelter or location being used for emergency sheltering. An individual with a disability cannot be separated from everyone else or moved to a separate shelter just because they have a service animal.

Ultimately, emergency responders should do their best to keep individuals together with their service animals whenever possible.  In some cases, keeping the individual and animal together may prevent additional damage and harm in an emergency. If an individual with PTSD witnesses a bombing, the service dog could help minimize the severity of a psychiatric episode and prevent destructive behaviors. If someone with a peanut allergy is taken to a shelter, his service animal could detect peanuts in the area and prevent that person from having an anaphylactic reaction. If they must be separated for safety reasons or space restrictions, it is important to keep them close and reunite them as soon as possible. Service animals are accessibility supports, not pets. They can – and do – save lives.


Resources for responders:


Resources for individuals with service animals: