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Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals: How Are They Different?

Have you ever wondered how an emotional support animal (or ESA) is different from a service animal? Maybe you’ve wondered if they’re different at all. Many people confuse the two, but they’re not quite the same. If you plan to get one of these kinds of animals (or if you already have one), understanding the differences between them is essential. It will help you navigate your housing options if you are moving rental homes. You may be wondering if you have to move into a pet-friendly apartment or if you’re legally allowed to move into a no-pet apartment.

These are all understandable questions to have. Trying to find the answers can be confusing. We’ve put together this short explanation of the most important differences between the two and how they are impacted by housing law. 

Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals Serve Different Purposes

The first thing to know about ESAs and service animals is that they serve different purposes. ESAs provide their owners with therapeutic benefits. They act as companions, most often for people with mental disorders such as anxiety or depression. For their owners, the presence of an ESA is calming or stabilizing. An ESA can help ease the symptoms of whatever distress their symptoms might cause them. The key is that an animal’s mere presence is the reason they are an ESA.

On the other hand, service animals do specific tasks for disabled people which those people cannot do themselves. ESAs are not trained to help with particular tasks, but service animals are. Some of the tasks assigned to service animals could include leading people around, alerting them to sounds, and opening doors and cabinets. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. One can see service animals doing many different kinds of tasks. Different types of service animals help people with different disabilities.

Service animals and ESAs also receive different types of training, and the law treats them differently. We’ll go into those differences, too, to make the difference between the two very clear. Then we can talk about how housing law treats the two types of animals differently and what this might mean for your rental home.

ESAs and Service Animals Receive Different Training

Service dogs and ESA receive different training to help with their different purposes. ESAs do not receive any training. All that is required to make a potential pet an ESA is a letter from a mental health professional designating the animal as such.

The case is different for service animals. Service animals undergo extensive training specific to the needs of their owner. This training can take anywhere from six months to a couple of years. It can take place in a program or through the owner of the service animal. In addition to learning their intended tasks, service animals are also under many different high-stress environments during their training. This prevents real-world conditions from becoming a distraction to the animals. Although the law does not require it, service animals will often wear harnesses or special collars to show that they are working.

How Are Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals Impacted By Housing Laws? 

Generally speaking, the law treats service animals and ESAs differently. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, ensures that disabled people who have service animals can take them into almost any public space. The same does not apply to ESAs. ESAs have limited legal rights and do not have the same access to all public spaces.

When it comes to housing law specifically, however, the case changes. Housing law treats service animals and ESAs as more alike. In fact, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development terms both as “assistance animals.” A landlord may require a tenant to provide documentation of the necessity for a service animal or an ESA. Most often, this is a doctor’s note stating that that the assistance animal in question alleviates the symptoms of the owner’s disability. This is true regardless of whether it is a service animal or an emotional support animal.

From there on out, landlords deal with requests on a case-by-case basis. However, it is worth noting that the Fair Housing Act considers both service animals and ESAs a “reasonable accommodation.” This means that landlords are only allowed to deny such requests under very specific conditions. These conditions include property damage, a threat to physical health or safety, a financial burden on the landlord, or an essential altering of the housing itself. 

What About No-Pet Apartments?

If you have a service animal or an ESA, you may also be wondering if the case is any different for apartments which have a no-pet policy. The existence of such a policy does not change anything from a legal standpoint; the Fair Housing Act still stands. As long as a tenant can prove they are disabled, landlords can only deny such requests under the limited set of conditions listed above.

It is also worth noting that landlords cannot charge a pet fee for assistance animals, though they may have a general no-pet policy. Although you can have an ESA in a no-pet policy rental, you may be better off looking at pet-friendly rentals. The atmosphere will be more welcoming to your pet and you will have a selection of amenities catered to them. 

It can be difficult to figure out the ins and outs of housing law. This is particularly when you have an animal moving with you. We hope that this guide to the differences between service animals and emotional support animals helps you as you look for a new home.

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