Service & Emotional Support Animals

As an attorney that focuses on Disability Rights issues, I get a lot of questions about service animals and emotional support animals. Most people do not know the difference and may even believe that these animals serve the same purpose, but they don’t! Here are a few details to help you understand the difference between service animals and emotional support animals.

Service animal:

Service animals are dogs (and in rare cases miniature horses) that are trained to perform specific tasks to help people with disabilities. Service animals are not required to wear any specific vest or collar and people who have service animals are not required to keep any specific paperwork to prove that their animal is a service animal.

For example, a service animal could be a dog that has been trained to help a person in a power wheelchair to pick up items that are dropped, open doors, and retrieve items from places a wheelchair user cannot reach.

Emotional support animal:

Emotional support animals provide comfort and companionship to individuals with disabilities, but are not trained to perform specific tasks because their presence is what helps mitigate the symptoms of a person’s disability. Emotional support animals can be any type of animal, but most frequently they are dogs and cats or even birds.

Where are they allowed?

Service animals are allowed anywhere their human goes, with limited exceptions. For example, if a brewery allows tours of their facility, the brewery must allow the service animal to go as well. However, if the general public is not allowed in the brewing area, then neither is the service animal. There are rare exceptions to this rule. For example, a service animal may be denied in a sterile surgical area even if their human is being operated on, however, the service animal would be allowed in a general recovery room that is not sterile.

Emotional support animals are not allowed to go anywhere their human goes. Under the Fair Housing Act, a person with a disability may be able to have an emotional support animal live in their dwelling as a reasonable accommodation. When considering the reasonable accommodation request, the housing provider must consider the following: (1) Does the person seeking to live with the animal have a disability?; and (2) Does the person making the request have a disability related need for the animal? If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then the housing provider allow the individual to have their emotional support animal in the housing unless doing so would create an undue burden.

While emotional support animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act, they ae not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means individuals do not have the right to bring their emotional support animals in public accommodations, such as restaurants or doctor’s offices. 

What are the responsibilities of the person with the disability?

A person with a disability who has a service animal must always have control over their animal through use of a leash, voice commands, or other methods. Further, the owner must ensure their animal is housebroken, vaccinated in accordance with all state and local laws, and does not pose a direct threat to others. 

A person with a disability who has an emotional support animal must ensure their animal does not pose a direct threat to the safety of others and must ensure that their animal will not cause substantial damage to the property of others, including the rental unit.

Do you want to know more about service animals or emotional support animals? Have another question about Disability Rights? Email with your questions and I may answer them in a future blog post!

About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.