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Property Managers: Do You Know the Difference between Service, Support and Therapy Animals?

The Property Manager’s Guide to Service and Support Animals

In recent years, the popularity of emotional support animals and therapy animals has caused quite the conundrum for property managers and landlords. Property managers often have a hard time distinguishing their rights under the law, fearing non-compliance violations. In this article, we’re breaking down the difference between types of service animals, tenants’ rights under the law, and how you can approach tenant requests.

Types of Animals

  • Let’s start by identifying the different working animal classifications. While many people might confuse service animals with therapy or emotional support animals, they are not the same and are afforded different legal protections.

Service Animals

  • According to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, service animals are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” These tasks might include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, opening a door, or alerting its owner to a sound or smell.

  • Only dogs are classified as “service animals” under the ADA. Seeing Eye Dogs, Hearing or Signal Dogs, or Seizure Response Dogs all fall under this classification.

  • Service dogs are specially trained to meet the needs of a disabled owner. They are trained to help one owner with their specific needs. Some dogs train for up to two years before being placed with an owner. Training for service dogs can cost up to $25,000. Most service dogs wear special vests that identify them as service animals.

  • Title II and Title III of the ADA protects these animals in public spaces. Owners may have service animals in rental units under the Fair Housing Act.

Emotional Support Animals

  • While many people use the terms “service animal” and “emotional support animal” (ESA) interchangeably, they perform very different functions. Service dogs require months or even years of training and serve very specific purposes. ESAs, on the other hand, do not require specialized training and function as more of a companion.

  • Service animals and ESAs do not have the same protections under the ADA. However, owners who can prove a physical, mental, or emotional disability must be allowed to have their emotional support animal in a rental unit under the Fair Housing Act.

Therapy Animals

  • Whereas service animals and ESAs typically serve just one owner, therapy animals (usually dogs) are trained to serve a large population. Therapy animals are most commonly found in schools, hospitals, mental health facilities, and nursing homes. These animals do not receive any legal protections under either the ADA or the FHA.


  • All other animals – those that aren’t service animals, ESAs, or therapy animals – are classified as “pets.” Most domesticated animals that live in our homes fall into this category. These animals have no specialized training and serve no purpose other than offering companionship and bringing us joy. Household pets are not covered under the ADA or the FHA.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Government and Commercial Properties Only

The Americans with Disabilities Act, published in 1991, requires government buildings and public places like shopping centers, restaurants, schools, and businesses to provide accommodations to those with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. The law also protects against discrimination based on disability.

Under the ADA, service animals are generally allowed into any public place or building. However, the ADA protections do not extend to private housing, so this isn’t the law that affects property managers and landlords most.

The Fair Housing Act, Service Animals, and Emotional Support Animals

This is where landlords and property managers must pay attention.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968 protects tenants from discrimination based on disability, sex, familial status, race, color, or national origin. Some states have included additional protections to the federal fair housing requirements as well. (You can learn more about the Fair Housing Act and what it means for property managers HERE.)

Under the FHA, landlords cannot discriminate against current or potential tenants based on disabilities. The property manager must also provide “reasonable accommodations” under the law, which includes both service animals and emotional support animals.

Under this law, if the tenant provides proof of a disability – be it physical, mental, or emotional –landlords must allow the animal to stay, even in a non-pet unit. Property managers must not charge a pet deposit or other monthly fee as the support animal or ESA is not considered a “pet.”

Failure to allow a service animal or emotional support animal could result in non-compliance complaints, FHA complaints, and accusations of discrimination.

What Isn’t Covered Under the Law

The FHA requires landlords and property managers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for those who can prove a disability. While this is open for interpretation, there are certain instances where the requests are obviously unreasonable. For example, an emotional support horse wouldn’t be allowed in an apartment. An emotional support rooster would be a nuisance to other tenants.

If you have any concerns about what is and is not considered “reasonable,” make sure you contact an attorney.

By educating yourself about the different types of service and support animals, you can better understand your tenant’s needs, your rights, and what accommodations you should make.

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