California Laws on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace

Most California employers must allow service dogs and emotional support animals in the workplace—unless it would create an undue hardship.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Under California law, workers with disabilities can bring service dogs and emotional support animals to work—with some limitations. Thanks to California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), job applicants and employees are protected from discrimination in the workplace based on a disability, including:

  • physical or mental disabilities
  • medical conditions that are potentially disabling, and
  • medical conditions perceived to be disabling (whether you're actually disabled or not).

This protection from disability discrimination requires employers to work with you to accommodate your disabilities in reasonable ways. This includes having to provide an accommodation for employees with assistive animals—for instance, by making an exception to the employer's usual rules about not bringing dogs to work.

Both state and federal laws protect disabled employees from workplace discrimination and require California employers to provide reasonable accommodation. Here's what you need to know about your right to have a service dog or emotional support animal at work.

Which California Employers Must Allow Service Animals in the Workplace?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law that protects the rights of disabled workers, service animals are considered a reasonable accommodation. Many, but not all, employers must abide by the ADA. To be covered, your employer must be one of the following:

  • a private employer with at least 15 employees, or
  • a state and local government (regardless of size).

California law covers even more employers. Under the FEHA, your employer must provide reasonable accommodation for support animals if the company has five or more employees (including both part-time and full-time workers). But the FEHA doesn't apply to religious nonprofit organizations.

What Counts as an Assistive Animal Under California Law?

In California, the term "assistive animal" includes trained animals that perform specific assistance for a disabled person, such as:

The term also includes "support" dogs and other emotional support animals. These assistive animals provide support to people with disabilities, such as:

  • traumatic brain injury, or
  • mental disability like major depression.

Only a dog trained to recognize and respond to an individual's disability-related need for assistance can be considered a service dog. But an emotional support animal doesn't have to be specially trained to perform work or tasks related to a person's disability in order to be covered by California's workplace disability laws.

Your Responsibility for Your Emotional Support Animal or Service Dog at Work

Although California law requires employers to accommodate disabled employees who need a service dog or emotional support animal at work, the law allows employers to set some limitations. Employers are allowed to require that an assistive animal in the workplace:

  • is free from offensive odors
  • doesn't engage in behavior that endangers the health or safety of the individual with a disability or others in the workplace, and
  • has habits appropriate to the work environment (for example, being potty-trained).

Because emotional support animals qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, California employers can't require that an animal have specific training to provide disability-related assistance to the employee before allowing the animal in the workplace.

Can a California Employer Ask for Proof of Disability Before Allowing an Assistive Animal at Work?

When the disability or need for reasonable accommodation isn't obvious, a job applicant or employee might need to provide the employer with reasonable medical documentation from a health care provider that confirms the following:

  • the existence of the disability, and
  • the need for reasonable accommodation.

Under California law, the health care provider who supplies this documentation doesn't have to be a doctor. Documentation can come from other providers, including the following:

  • clinical psychologists
  • clinical social workers
  • marriage and family therapists, or
  • other health care providers (including acupuncturists).

Who's Protected by California's Service Animal Accommodation Rules?

In California, a job applicant or employee with a mental or physical disability or medical disorder that makes it difficult to perform a "major life activity" is protected by these rules. For the purposes of disability discrimination in the workplace, "mental disability" includes all of the following:

  • intellectual or cognitive disability
  • learning disabilities
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • organic brain syndrome, and
  • chronic or episodic conditions such as:
    • bipolar disorder
    • post-traumatic stress disorder
    • clinical depression, and
    • obsessive-compulsive disorder.

California's definition of disability is broader than the federal definition. Like federal law, California considers working to be a major life activity. But in California, a disability need only "limit" your ability to work to qualify for legal protections, whereas federal law requires that disability "substantially limit" your ability to work.

Also, in California, to be limited in the major life activity of working, you only need to be limited in performing the requirements of a single, particular job. Under federal law, you must be significantly restricted in the ability to perform either:

  • a broad range of jobs in various classes, or
  • a class of jobs.

The inability to perform a single, particular job isn't considered a substantial limitation under the ADA. That means California law protects a greater number of workers who need to bring their service dog or emotional support animal to work than federal law does.

Workplace protections in California also apply to job applicants and employees with a "special education" disability. Someone with a special education disability has a health impairment or mental or psychological disorder that requires special education or related services (or has in the past) but that doesn't qualify as a mental disability.

When Is Accommodating a Service Dog at Work Unreasonable?

If you have a disability, you generally have the right to reasonable accommodation at work—that is, workplace changes or assistive measures that allow you to perform the essential functions of your job. And California regulations specifically include allowing service dogs and emotional support animals at work among its examples of reasonable accommodation. (California Code of Regulations, Title 2, Division 4.1, Subchapter 2, Article 9, Section 11065(p)(2)(B).)

But an employer isn't required to provide reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee if doing so would impose an "undue hardship" on the business. Under the law, an undue hardship is any accommodation that causes significant difficulty or expense considering the following:

  • the cost of the accommodation
  • the company's size and financial resources, and
  • the nature and structure of the business's operation.

Learn more about when your employer can refuse your request for accommodation.

Making a Reasonable Accommodation Request for a Service Dog or Support Animal

Under both California law and the ADA, if you need a workplace accommodation—including bringing your service or support animal to work—you must request it. It's generally better to put your request for accommodation in writing.

Once you request accommodation, the law requires your employer to work with you to figure out an accommodation that'll be both effective and practical. So, even if your employer has concerns about having your assistive animal at work, the employer can't just deny your request outright. Instead, your employer must engage with you in what the law calls a "flexible, interactive process."

For example, let's say you ask to bring your service dog to work, but your employer is hesitant because of a coworker who's allergic to dogs. Your employer must work with you to find a strategy that accommodates you and protects that employee. That could include:

  • having you and the allergic employee work in different parts of the building
  • providing one or both of you with offices with doors that can be kept closed
  • adding HEPA air filters, or
  • staggering your schedules, so you and the allergic employee don't work at the same time.

What If Your Employer Won't Allow Your Service Animal at Work?

The state generally considers having a service dog or emotional support animal in the workplace a reasonable accommodation. So, what can you do if your employer refuses your request to bring your service dog or support animal to work?

If your supervisor refuses your request to have your support animal at work, start by moving up the chain of command. Submit your request to a higher authority within the company (like your boss's boss) or directly to the HR department. If you work at a branch office, send your request to the corporate headquarters.

If your employer still denies your request to bring your assistive animal to work or takes negative action against you because of your request for accommodation, contact an experienced disability discrimination attorney. A lawyer can help you file a complaint with the federal and state departments that enforce disability discrimination laws in the workplace:

And if needed, your attorney can file a lawsuit against your employer in court.

An employer that loses a reasonable accommodation case can be ordered to comply with ADA and FEHA rules (meaning you must be allowed to have your service or emotional support animal at work). The court can also order your employer to pay any or all of the following:

  • damages (money to help you recover your losses, including for emotional distress)
  • civil penalties (fines)
  • punitive damages (meant to punish the employer), and
  • your legal fees.

Learn more about finding an employment discrimination attorney to take your case.

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