When does a pet become ’emotional support animal’? Philly woman’s case may yield answer

 Jan Rubin caresses her 12-year-old Plott hound Mira. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Jan Rubin caresses her 12-year-old Plott hound Mira. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Advocates for the disabled are hoping that a case pitting a woman and her dog against a Center City co-op will clarify the status of what are known as “emotional support animals.”

Philadelphia resident Jan Rubin, who suffers from a degenerative back condition, is trying to win the right to bring her dog Mira to a new apartment in the Kennedy House co-op in downtown Philadelphia, despite the building’s no-pets policy.

Rubin and her doctors say Mira has proven therapeutic value, and a Pennsylvania court recently ruled in her favor, finding that federal housing law requires Kennedy House to accommodate her needs.

But attorneys for Kennedy House have appealed to Commonwealth Court, on the grounds that the Americans with Disabilities Act only protects service dogs that have been specifically trained for a task, such as seeing-eye dogs.

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To Rubin, a former real estate developer forced into retirement by her back issues, Mira’s value is undeniable.

“I’m in pain 24/7,” she said. “I keep a lot of odd hours, which is not uncommon for people who don’t have a job or something else that regulates their life. So Mira forces my life to have some order. And it’s been extremely helpful.”

And even though Mira doesn’t do anything now that she didn’t do five years ago, the changes in Rubin’s life have changed Mira’s role in the household. The daily routine of feeding and walking the communicative 12-year-old dog helps Rubin deal with her own pain and manage her own care, she said.

“Five years ago, she wasn’t an early warning system,” Rubin said. “Now she’s an early warning system. And a reminder of what time of day it was. Time to take meds, for me or for her — that wasn’t her job before.”

Rubin’s case was backed by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and relies on federal housing laws that require accommodations for emotional support animals.

Rue Landau, the head of the commission, said those laws are clear — when an animal is shown by a doctor to have genuine medical value, it is no longer just a “pet,” and is entitled to protections that other animals don’t get.

“If you show the proper documentation, and you show that there is a correlation between your medical condition and how the animal alleviates that condition, the housing provider has to allow you to have this animal,” Landau said.

Conditions that can be helped by support animals include autism and PTSD, she said.

A landlord can require a tenant to do things like use a leash and muzzle, use certain entrances, or otherwise make sure the animal doesn’t interfere with other tenants’ safety, she said. But a landlord cannot bar an an animal with proven therapeutic value outright, she said.

Attorneys for the Kennedy House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Both sides must now wait while the Commonwealth Court decides whether to take up the appeal.

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