Penalties for Using a Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal Under False Pretenses

In states with assistance animal fraud laws, penalties can range from fines to imprisonment.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

An increasing number of people falsely claim their pets are service animals so they can take them to public places. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as the disability laws of many states, people with disabilities are entitled to have their service animals:

  • in places of public accommodation
  • on public transit
  • on the job, and
  • in their apartment or other housing.

Having the assistance of a service dog or assistance animal allows those with disabilities to live and travel independently and to fully enjoy and use public facilities and spaces—from courthouses and parks to hotels, restaurants, and stores.

These disability laws generally require landlords, transportation operators, employers, and business owners to allow service animals even if they otherwise prohibit animals. Unfortunately, some people try to take advantage of these protections by falsely claiming that their pets are service animals.

Many states have caught on to this ruse and have made it a crime to try to pass off a pet as a service animal with penalties that range from fines to prison time.

What Legally Counts as a Service Animal?

Under the federal ADA, a service animal is a dog that's been individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability—whether physical or mental. In some cases, specially trained miniature horses also count as service animals.

Most state disability laws define service animals similarly, although the details can vary. To find out your state's rules, select your state from our list of state laws on service animals.

Service animals perform a wide variety of tasks, such as:

  • alerting their handlers to allergens, low blood sugar, or the onset of a seizure
  • providing physical assistance by, for example, pulling a wheelchair, pushing elevator buttons, opening or closing drawers, or helping their handlers retain their balance while transferring into or out of a wheelchair, using the bathroom, or standing up
  • assisting with psychiatric disabilities by reminding handlers to take medication, providing calming physical contact to handlers with anxiety disorders, performing safety checks to alleviate fears for those with PTSD, or intervening in self-destructive behavior, and
  • communicating important information to those with sensory disabilities, like helping a blind handler navigate city streets, or informing a deaf handler of a ringing phone or doorbell.

Service animals are specially trained to perform their tasks. In fact, many are bred specifically for this purpose and then trained for months to learn their work. The work requires such focus and discipline that many animals don't ultimately make the grade—and those that do often retire in middle age.

As wonderful as they can be, pets aren't service animals. Federal and state laws that protect your right to have an assistance animal don't apply to pets.

Emotional support animals, which provide comfort, companionship, and even protection to those with emotional or psychological disabilities or conditions, also don't meet the definition of a service animal. Although emotional support animals can benefit their owners and might have therapeutic value, they're not the same as trained psychiatric service animals and aren't covered under service animal laws.

Penalties for Making False Claims

A growing number of states have passed laws making it illegal to falsely claim that you're entitled to be accompanied by a service animal. In some states, it's illegal to falsely misrepresent that your pet or other animal is a service animal (for example, by putting your dog in a "guide dog" or "service dog" vest).

The penalties for violating these laws vary from a simple fine and/or community service to jail time. For example:

  • In California, falsely and knowingly claiming to be the owner or trainer of a service animal is a misdemeanor. It can result in up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
  • In New Jersey, you can be fined from $100 to $500 for putting your dog in a guide dog harness to falsely pass it off as a guide dog.
  • In Texas, outfitting your dog as a service animal (when it's not) is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $300 and 30 hours of community service.
  • In Colorado, falsely claiming your pet is an assistance animal is a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of $25 to $500, depending on whether it's your first, second, or third offense.
  • In Michigan, claiming your animal is a service animal or service animal in training when it's not is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, up to 30 days of community service, and/or 90 days in jail.
  • In Tennessee, misrepresenting your animal as a service or support animal is a Class B misdemeanor, and a violation could get you 100 hours of community service.
  • In Florida, falsely claiming your animal is a service animal is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days imprisonment or a fine of up to $500. The guilty party must also perform 30 hours of community service.
  • In Rhode Island, misrepresenting your pet or another animal as a service animal is a civil violation, punishable by up to 30 hours of community service.
  • In Montana, it's a misdemeanor to claim your animal is a service animal when it's not. The penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 and can include community service for an organization that advocates on behalf of persons with disabilities.
  • In North Carolina, disguising your pet as a service animal or service animal in training is a Class 3 misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $200.
  • In Pennsylvania, you can be fined up to $1,000 for misrepresenting an animal as an assistance or service animal in housing.

A handful of states also make it a crime to pretend that you have a disability and are thus entitled to have a service animal or assistance dog with you. If your state makes it illegal to impersonate or pretend to be a person with a disability, you might get into trouble over keeping an emotional support animal.

To have an emotional support animal in rental housing, under the federal Fair Housing Act, you must have a disability. If you lie about having a disability so you can keep your animal, you could run afoul of this type of state law.

For instance, in Alabama, pretending you're disabled to get around your landlord's no-pet policy carries a civil penalty of $500 to $3,000. A habitual offender could even see jail time.

Why False Claims Are So Damaging

For people with disabilities, specially trained service animals play an absolutely vital role. They make it possible for those with disabilities to work, travel, stay safe, and, in some cases, stay alive.

By falsely claiming that your pet is a service animal so you can, for example, bring it into a restaurant with you or take it on the bus, you're not only inconveniencing others who have to put up with your animal, but you're poisoning attitudes towards genuine service animals. That can lead bystanders and proprietors to believe others might be "faking it."

In addition, if you enter a facility where an actual service animal is working, your untrained animal could jeopardize the safety of the service animal and its handler. And you might be breaking the law. Leave your pet at home and allow real service animals to do their jobs.

Updated April 17, 2024

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