Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

By Rachel Cook – March 1, 2021

At first glance, service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs) can seem like two very similar labels and, in a way, they are. But what it takes for an animal to qualify as one or the other does differ in some major ways. Here, we’ve broken down the guidelines to allow for a general understanding of what’s what.

Service Dogs

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” These tasks directly support people who are impeded by disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, calming those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and more. 

This specific training distinguishes work animals from pets. Service dogs typically breed and then begin training around six months old. Some organizations, such as Canine Companions, host programs with puppy raisers who work to prepare the pups for training. After formal training, the dogs are then paired with someone in need of a service dog. 

Under the ADA, “state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally” are required to allow service dogs even where pets would not typically be allowed. Documentation or proof that the dog is “certified, trained or licensed,” according to the ADA, is not allowed to be required for entry of service dogs into a facility. That being said, service animals must accompany their handler and be leashed. 

In regard to more specific scenarios, the ADA has a more extensive list of information on the legal rights of owners of service dogs. For example, if it is not obvious that the animal is a service animal in a public location, staff members may only ask two questions: “Is the service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” Handlers of service animals are guaranteed the right to the same treatment as anyone else in a public space. Hotels cannot charge for animals or assign “pet-friendly” rooms to guests. Hospitals and ambulances must also, generally, accommodate service animals so as not to separate the animal from its handler. 

Emotional Support Animals

An emotional support animal is any animal that provides comfort and support regularly. For emotional support animals, there is only one legally defining characteristic that qualifies an animal for the role: an ESA letter written by a licensed therapist, meaning just about any kind of animal can be considered an emotional support animal, not just dogs and cats. 

The purposes and benefits of emotional support animals are quite different from those of a service animal, which could be why the government didn’t recognize ESAs until the Federal Fair Housing Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Unlike service animals, they are not trained to perform any particular task. Their owners only receive and keep a written ESA letter confirming that the designated animal serves the purpose of supporting the owner who has been diagnosed with a mental illness. 

The benefit of an ESA letter, under the Fair Housing Act, includes the ability to keep the animal “as a reasonable accommodation to a housing provider’s pet restrictions.” This reasonable accommodation could look like requesting to “live with an assistance animal at a property where a housing provider has a no-pets policy” or “a request to waive a pet deposit.” However, it’s important to note that public spaces are not legally required to allow emotional support animals, therapy, comfort or companion animals and are not protected under the ADA. 


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