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What Is The Difference Between A Service Animal, An Emotional Support Animal, A Comfort Animal, A Companion Animal, and a Therapy Animal?

Posted by Tristan R. Pettit, Esq. in Fair Housing / Discrimination, Assistance Animals, Companion/Comfort Animals / Comments

There is much confusion regarding the difference between the various terms used for assistance animals. Landlords, tenants, tenant's health care providers, lawyers and even the courts are often confused when it comes to this issue. Hopefully this blog post will help.

I often use the generic term "assistance animal" to refer to any animal that is prescribed for a tenant to assist him or her in some way. The general term "assistance animal" includes all of the terms mentioned below.

Service Animals

The American's with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as an dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

  • A service animal can only be a dog or a miniature horse (if certain conditions are met).
  • The task performed by the animal must be directly related to the person's disability.
  • Tasks performed by a service animal may include pulling a wheelchair, guiding a person who is blind, alerting a person to an oncoming seizure, pressing an elevator button, or reminding a person to take his or her medicine.
  • Because a service animal is trained, it typically will not cause any problems in rental housing. Service dogs are better behaved than most human beings that I have met. A Landlord rarely needs to be concerned about a service animal causing problems.
  • A service animal is allowed to accompany its handler everywhere including public places, private property, rental housing, an airplanes, with a few very limited exceptions.
  • There is no government entity that certifies or registers service animals. Those service animal cards, badges, and vests that you have seen can be purchased by anyone and used for animals that are not service dogs.
  • Service animals are not pets. They are an assistive device.

Emotional Support Animals, Comfort Animals, and Companion Animals

The terms emotional support animal (ESA), companion animal and comfort animal are interchangeable and refer to an animal that assists a person with a mental or emotional health issue.

  • An ESA provides companionship, relieves loneliness, and mitigates the emotions or psychological symptoms associated with the handler's mental health issue.
  • An ESA is not specifically trained to work or perform a task.
  • Because an ESA is not specially trained like a service animal, an ESA may be poorly behaved and may cause problems in rental housing including, but not limited to, excessive barking, damaging property, running away, and attacking other animals, residents, vendors or management staff.
  • An ESA is not restricted by type of animal or breed of animal and may include any and all animals.
  • An ESA is not allowed in public places like stores or restaurants as it is not a service animal. An ESA is allowed in rental housing as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. An ESA is also allowed on airplanes.
  • An ESA is not a pet.

Therapy Animals

A therapy animal is a pet that is trained to interact with people other than its handler in order to make those people feel better. Therapy animals are typically found in a group setting like a hospital, retirement home, nursing homes, etc.

  • A therapy animal can be any type of animal.
  • A therapy animal is not specifically trained but typically is well-mannered and will behave safely around all types of people.
  • To become a therapy animal, the animal typically must pass a test and may be certified
  • A therapy animal does not have any special access rights to public places, private property, rental housing or airplanes, unlike service animals and ESA's
  • A therapy animal is a pet.

So in the majority of situations where a landlord is asked by a tenant to keep an animal to assist him or her, the tenant is referring to an ESA/comfort animal/companion animal, even though the tenant may improperly refer to the animal as a service animal. Also remember that the only type of animal that can be a service animal is a dog or a miniature horse (if certain conditions are met).

They key for landlords is to focus on what they animal does for the tenant rather than what the animal is called. Does the animal assist a tenant with a disability? Is the animal prescribed for the tenant as a result of their disability?

It really does not matter to a landlord whether the animal is a service animal or an ESA since both are allowed in rental housing.

Since so many people use the various terms incorrectly, a landlord does not want to put himself is a difficult (and possibly expensive) situation by responding improperly to a tenant's request to keep an animal just because the tenant used the incorrect term. Focus on what the animal does for the tenant and not what the animal is called.

Tristan is a shareholder with the law firm of Petrie+Pettit and focuses his practice in the area of landlord-tenant law representing landlords and property management companies throughout Wisconsin.

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