From the airport to the doctor’s office or the local grocery store, it’s becoming more and more common to notice emotional support animals or service dogs, assisting their owners in a variety of ways. Although it might be difficult to tell them apart at first glance, there are important distinctions in the laws and roles served by service animals versus emotional support animals.  

What are Emotional Support Animals?

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal that provides comfort, companionship, or emotional support to a person with a diagnosed mental health condition. ESAs must legally be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist. Unlike service animals, ESAs are not required to be trained to perform specific tasks for individuals and are not granted access as widely as service dogs.

People with ESAs are afforded rights under the Fair Housing Act, which requires landlords and property owners to make reasonable accommodation for a tenant with an ESA. The landlord can ask for a copy of the ESA letter, but they cannot (with few exceptions) refuse rental housing on the basis of the ESA or charge additional fees or deposits. Another law that protects owners of ESAs is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which allows people to fly with their ESA in the aircraft cabin if needed for their disability during the flight or at their destination. This law has caught public interest, as people have tried to fly with all kinds of ESA animals, from peacocks to pigs to turkeys. Airlines now have additional policies regarding submitting intention to travel with an ESA in advance, evidence of the animal’s basic training and basic health, etc. 

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What is a Service Animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination, defines service animals as dogs (and, in some cases, miniature horses) that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. For instance, a person who is blind might have a service animal to help guide him or her. Service animals are not pets but working animals who undergo specific training to directly help a person with a specific disability. Whether the service animal is assisting with mobility, helping protect the person from seizures, calming an individual with PTSD, or assisting in some other way, they serve a specific work role for the individual with the disability. Under the ADA law, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and State and local governments generally must allow the presence of service animals to accompany people with disabilities in areas where the public is normally allowed to go.

Differences for Businesses to Consider

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not automatically allowed in restaurants and other businesses, and businesses have the right to accept or deny ESAs. Employers are not required to allow ESAs into the workplace for their employees and may request to see an ESA letter for verification. There are more legal protections regarding service animals. In situations where it is not clear that a dog is a service animal, the staff of a covered entity may ask two specific questions only.

1. Is the dog a service animal required of a disability?
2. What work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?

They may not request documentation, and the ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest or ID tag.

Service animals and emotional support animals serve important functions in the lives of many people and it is important to understand the laws relating to them, both for people who may benefit from them, and business who may be frequented by individuals who use them

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