Emotional Support Animals versus Service Animals.  What’s the Difference?

J. Courtney Cunningham May 19, 2023

Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), there are differences between emotional support animals (ESAs) and service animals in terms of their legal protections and allowed accommodations:
Definition: A service animal is specifically trained to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities, while an emotional support animal provides companionship, support, or comfort to individuals with mental health conditions.

  1. Scope of coverage: The FHA recognizes both service animals and emotional support animals as reasonable accommodations in housing settings, such as apartments or rental units, even in properties with "no pets" policies.

  2. Disability requirement: For a service animal, the person must have a recognized disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On the other hand, an emotional support animal is prescribed by a mental health professional to alleviate symptoms of a mental health condition.

  3. Training: Service animals undergo specialized training to perform specific tasks that mitigate their owner's disability. Emotional support animals do not require any specific training but must be well-behaved and not pose a threat or nuisance.

  4. Documentation: Housing providers may request documentation or verification for both service animals and emotional support animals. For service animals, the provider can only ask about the tasks the animal is trained to perform. For emotional support animals, the provider can ask for a letter from a licensed mental health professional confirming the need for the animal.

  5. Air travel and public spaces: While the FHA covers housing, other laws govern service animals and emotional support animals in different contexts. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the ADA, only service animals are allowed in cabins on commercial flights and public spaces, respectively. Emotional support animals do not have the same legal protections.

It's important to note that laws and regulations can vary between countries and jurisdictions, so it's advisable to consult the specific laws applicable to your location for accurate and up-to-date information.   If you have an issue concerning either a service dog or emotional support animal, please contact me for help.