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The Rise of Service Animals and Potential Bite Risks

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May 13, 2024

More than 61 million people live with disabilities in the United States. Approximately 1 percent of them receive assistance from a service animal. In Georgia, service animals are also known as “assistance dogs.” Although thousands more people receive help from emotional support animals, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that only specially trained dogs can be classified as service animals

Many Atlanta residents benefit from the support of service animals. They can assist with conditions including autism, diabetes, PTSD, seizures, and more. Georgia is home to a number of charities and organizations that train service animals and look out for their needs and those of their owners. Yet, sadly, sometimes even the best-trained animals can react badly to stressful situations, biting and injuring their owners or others.

In this article, we will explore the increasingly important role of service and emotional support animals in the Atlanta community. We will look at what service animal owners can do to minimize the risk of bite injuries and examine your rights in the case you have been bitten.

The Growing Importance of Service Animals

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increase in the number of people identified as disabled across the United States. One analysis of data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 1.2 million more people had a disability in 2021 than in the previous year. 

Additionally, in recent years, there has been an increase in mental health conditions. Statistics show that the number of adults who have experienced a mental illness has increased from 17.7 percent in 2008 to 22.8 percent in 2021.

Increasingly, people with disabilities and mental health concerns are finding assistance animals to help them with stress reduction and other benefits. While only a small number of the creatures may be officially classified “service animals,” all remain subject to certain regulations.

The Role of Service Animals

Only trained assistance dogs are classified as service animals in Georgia. They will have had to be trained by a professional organization or a licensed individual. Under Georgia State law § 16-11-107.1, assistance dogs are defined as those trained to perform tasks for a physically challenged person.

The roles of service animals include:

  •  Seeing-eye dogs that assist blind people
  •  Hearing dogs that alert the deaf to sounds like alarms and doorbells
  •  Assistance dogs that pick up objects or pull a wheelchair
  •  Medical alert dogs trained to detect seizures or other episodes

Service dogs undergo rigorous training to remain calm under almost all circumstances. However, they are still animals, so they may negatively react if they feel provoked or under stress. While it is rare for service animals to bite, it can happen.

Although service animals are protected under the ADA, you should seek legal advice if one has attacked you. Depending on the circumstances of the incident, you may be able to pursue compensation.

Emotional support animals in Georgia

In line with the ADA, the State of Georgia does not classify emotional support animals as service animals. 

However, Georgia does have laws around emotional support animals. For example, owners need a signed prescription letter issued by a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist to show they need the animal to alleviate at least one symptom of a mental health condition.

Various kinds of animals can be emotional support animals, including dogs, cats, miniature horses, rodents, reptiles, and rabbits. However, a key requirement is that they must be well-behaved and not display aggression towards other animals. 

For tenants, the key benefits of having a registered emotional support animal in Georgia are the protections provided under fair housing laws. For example, some landlords may not allow pet ownership yet cannot refuse requests to keep an assistance animal in the home. However, if your emotional support animal behaves aggressively and bites someone, causing injuries, the victim could seek compensation under Georgia’s dog bite laws.

The benefits of service animals

study published in 2023 explored the benefits of being paired with a service dog for people with both visible and invisible disabilities. The results were overwhelmingly positive, including:

  •  96 percent reported emotional connection benefits
  •  97 percent noted benefits in community participation
  •  98 percent reported improved psychological well-being
  •  97 percent benefited from improved quality of life
  •  78 percent were able to reduce their prescribed medications
  •  83 percent reduced their paid or unpaid assistance hours

Studies have found that assistance animals can increase oxytocin and dopamine, hormones linked with a positive emotional state. Assistance animals can also decrease blood pressure and cortisol. Although their primary role is to assist with specific tasks, they have also been found to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress.

The miniature horse exception

Although the ADA specifically defines service animals as dogs, it has a separate provision for miniature horses. According to US Service Animals, like service dogs, service horses can be trained to:

  •  Guide handlers with visual disabilities
  •  Retrieve medication
  •  Provide a distraction and grounding during panic attacks and flashbacks
  •  Support and stabilize their handler during dizzy episodes
  •  Leading handlers to exits in unfamiliar locations

There can be certain advantages to miniature horses over dogs as service animals. They have a longer lifespan and are also better able than dogs to stand quietly for long periods of time. However, they are also easily spooked and require extensive training and housebreaking before they are ready for service.

Just like assistance dogs, miniature horses can bite. However, biting is rare in all types of horses. In extreme cases, horse bites can lead to crush injuries and may spread infectious diseases. If you have been the victim of a bite from a service horse, an Atlanta personal injury lawyer can explain the legal avenues open to you.

Georgia laws do not explicitly provide for miniature horses. However, where provisions of state and federal law differ, a disabled person is entitled to rely on the law that provides the most protection.

Where can I take a service animal in Georgia?

According to federal laws, almost all businesses and organizations open to the public must accept service animals, including:

  •  Healthcare facilities (hospital protocols may apply)
  •  Restaurants
  •  Taxis
  •  Grocery stores
  •  Theaters
  •  Nursing homes

Religious organizations, though, are a notable exception to this requirement. Businesses may ask the dog owner if it is a service animal and what tasks it has been trained to perform. However, they cannot ask for specific details of the dog owner’s medical conditions.

Flying with a service animal

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), a service animal is any dog that has been trained to perform tasks on behalf of its handler due to a disability. Airlines must accept them on board and may accept other species at their discretion. However, they are not obliged to accept emotional support animals or other types of assistance animals on board. 

Risks and Safety Concerns With Animal Bites

At best, bites from a dog or another animal are uncomfortable, but at worst, they can lead to catastrophic, disabling injuries. 

Disease concerns

Zoonotic disease transmission happens when a person comes into contact with the saliva, blood, urine, or other bodily fluids of an infected animal. Zoonotic pathogen transmission can occur if you are bitten by any type of animal and can be detrimental to human health. However, in North America, transmission of such diseases from domestic animals to humans is rare.

A more serious risk is infection. Wounds could be infected by the bacteria present in the animal’s mouth. That is just one reason you should always seek immediate medical treatment after being bitten by any animal. The animal’s veterinarian may also be able to check its vaccination records and advise you on further precautions to take.

Other injuries

Depending on the animal, bites can cause significant damage to the skin, soft tissues, and nerves. You may need extensive physical therapy to regain the use of the affected part of the body.

Dog bites can also have psychological consequences. Many victims, especially children, may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after an attack by a dog or other animal.

Animal bites can also result in scarring or permanent disfigurement. If you have been left scarred or disfigured by an attack from a service dog or assistance animal, this can cause ongoing psychological consequences. You may be entitled to seek compensation for your injuries and the ongoing trauma they have caused.

Diet and dog behavior

There is one theory that feeding pet dogs – and, by extension, service animals – a raw meat diet can make them more aggressive. Yet, there does not appear to be enough scientific evidence to back this up. That said, a raw meat diet can bring other risks, which service dog owners should investigate before starting such a feeding program.

What to Do After a Service Animal Bite

If you get bitten by a service animal or another assistance animal in Georgia, the same laws apply as if you had been bitten by a regular animal. However, the first thing to do is get medical attention. As we saw, there are potential risks from an animal bite that you need to mitigate before pursuing your legal options. 

Avoid discussing liability with the dog owner. Instead, talk to an experienced Georgia dog bite attorney. 

Georgia law on dog bites

Georgia does have strict liability laws in place to govern dog bites, but it comes with an important caveat. The dog must first be considered either vicious or dangerous. An attorney may be able to prove this by demonstrating that a city ordinance required the dog to be leashed. 

Other factors that could affect liability include:

  •  Whether the dog had bitten someone before or had a history of aggressive behavior
  •  Whether the owner acted negligently by not controlling or supervising the dog
  •  Whether the bite victim provoked the dog

While these laws specifically relate to dog bites, if you were bitten by a different animal, you still need to seek legal advice. An experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney is well-placed to provide the answers you need.

How a dog bite attorney can help

Georgia’s laws around bites from dogs and other animals are complex. That is why it is important to consult with an experienced dog bite attorney to get advice tailored to your situation. He or she can look at your case from different angles to work out how to build the strongest case on your behalf. 

Animal bites can cause complications, including infections, nerve damage, permanent disability, and mental health problems. Therefore, it is important to get the right legal advice and pursue the compensation you need for your economic and non-economic losses.

Trust Hoffspiegel Law With Your Dog Bite Case

Service dogs and other assistance animals usually do a stellar job of supporting their handlers. Yet when their training goes out the window and they attack, you need someone to fight for your rights. While you may feel bad seeking compensation, it is vital to protect your well-being and your financial security.

At Hoffspiegel Law, we understand that you need justice after being bitten by a service animal. While this area of law can be complex, our dog bite attorneys will listen with care as you tell them your story. They can then advise you on whether you have a case and how best to proceed.

Do not delay pursuing the compensation you deserve. Call Hoffspiegel Law at (404) 760-8600 to schedule a free case evaluation today, or fill out our contact form, and we will get in touch soon.