North Carolina Laws on Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

North Carolina law and federal law protect your right to have service dogs in public places and housing.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law

In North Carolina, both state law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect the rights of people with disabilities to have their service animals in public. Under these laws, all "public accommodations," including stores and restaurants, must admit your service animal. And both North Carolina law and the ADA require those who operate transportation services to allow service animals.

Public accommodations in North Carolina must comply with both state and federal law. And if you're disabled, you're entitled to rely on whichever law provides the most protection.

Here's what you need to know about which animals qualify as service animals in North Carolina, which public accommodations must allow them, and how these laws treat emotional support animals.

What's the Difference Between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal in North Carolina?

North Carolina's law on public accommodations refers to service animals but doesn't define which animals qualify. But the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has created a brochure for businesses regarding customers with service animals, which uses the ADA's definition.

How does the law define service animal? Under the ADA, a service animal is a dog that's individually trained to perform tasks or do work for the benefit of a person with a disability. (In some cases, a miniature horse can also qualify as a service animal under the ADA.) The tasks or work your service animal does must be directly related to your disability.

Examples of service animals covered by North Carolina law and the ADA include the following:

  • a guide dog that assists a blind or visually impaired person in navigating safely
  • a hearing animal that alerts someone with impaired hearing to important sounds, such as:
    • sirens
    • doorbells
    • ringtones, and
    • other sounds the person should respond to, or
  • an animal that performs specific tasks like:
    • pulling a wheelchair
    • pushing elevator buttons
    • retrieving items, or
    • offering stability and support for someone with mobility restrictions.

The ADA and North Carolina law also cover psychiatric service dogs. These dogs aid people with mental disabilities by scanning for safety threats or interrupting dangerous or self-destructive behaviors.

Does the law cover emotional support animals? Although not trained to perform specific tasks, emotional support animals (ESAs) often have therapeutic benefits. Their presence can provide companionship, comfort, and a sense of safety to those with psychiatric or emotional disabilities or conditions.

But because ESAs aren't individually trained to perform specific tasks for their handlers, the owners of public accommodations aren't required to admit them. In North Carolina, federal and state laws only protect your right to have your service animal with you in public—not your emotional support animal.

These laws also don't apply to pets.

Where Does North Carolina Allow You to Take Your Service Animal?

Under North Carolina law, if you have a disability, you can bring your service animal anywhere the public is invited to go. That's a wide range of public accommodations and includes:

  • hotels and other types of lodging
  • all places of accommodation, amusement, or resort, and
  • on board any form of public transportation—including buses and airlines.

Under the ADA, the definition of public accommodations is also very broad. It includes the places listed above and all the following:

  • public transportation terminals and stations
  • restaurants and other places that serve food and drink
  • sales or rental establishments
  • service establishments
  • any place of public gatherings, such as an auditorium or convention center
  • places of entertainment and exhibit, like theaters or sports stadiums
  • gyms, golf courses, and other places of exercise or recreation
  • recreational facilities, such as national, state, or county parks
  • places where collected items are displayed, like libraries and museums
  • daycares, schools, and other educational institutions
  • state and local government facilities
  • social service centers, and
  • nonprofit organizations that serve the public (like food banks).

How the Public Accommodation Rules for Service Animals and ESAs Differ in North Carolina

Service animals. North Carolina law says that if you're disabled, you have the right to be accompanied by a service animal trained to assist you with your specific disability in any of the places listed above. It also says that you qualify for these protections by either:

  • showing that the animal has been or is being trained to act as a service animal, or
  • displaying a tag issued by the state Health and Human Services Department stating that you've registered your animal as a service animal.

Registration is voluntary—your dog doesn't have to be registered as a service animal to accompany you to any public accommodation. If you choose to register your dog, you can find the application form on the NC Department of Health and Human Services website.

When you have a service animal, the establishments you visit can't ask you detailed questions about your disability or your animal. But you can be asked if your animal is a service animal and which tasks the animal is trained to perform.

Public accommodations also can't charge you extra to bring your service dog—including extra cleaning fees at hotels. And hotels can't require you to stay in "pet-friendly" rooms—you have the right to book any open room, whether pets are permitted or not. But, you can be required to pay for any damage your dog causes.

Emotional support animals. The public accommodation rules for emotional support animals are different. Since the ADA and North Carolina law don't recognize emotional support animals as service animals, public accommodations can refuse your ESA entry or charge you extra to bring your ESA along. Hotels and inns can require you to stay in "pet-friendly" rooms and charge extra fees to have your emotional support animal with you.

How Housing Laws Treat Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals in North Carolina

Under North Carolina's service animal law, if you have a disability and you use a service animal, you're entitled to have your animal with you on any premises you lease, rent, or use. A landlord can't require you to pay extra to have a service dog, although you're liable for any damages your animal causes to the property or to another person.

The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects your right to have an "assistance animal" in your home—which can be a service animal or an emotional support animal. Under the FHA, housing facilities must allow service dogs and ESAs—if having the animal is necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the home.

Under the FHA, service dogs and emotional support animals aren't considered pets, so a "no pets" policy in a lease doesn't apply to them. And you can't be charged a pet deposit to have your service dog or ESA live with you.

To fall under this federal housing provision, you must have a disability and a disability-related need for the animal. In other words, the animal must perform tasks or services for your benefit OR alleviate the emotional effects of your disability to qualify for FHA protection.

Learn about the federal rules for flying with your service dog or ESA, including when your right to have an assistive animal on the plane is protected and when it's not.

Updated April 11, 2023

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