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Navigating the Leash: Distinctions Between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals

Navigating the Leash: Distinctions Between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals

The presence of animals in various capacities has become increasingly common in public spaces and housing, leading to a significant rise in confusion regarding the distinctions between Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals. In this discussion, we will delve into the fundamental differences between ESAs and Service Animals, shedding light on their unique roles, legal requirements, and the common misconceptions surrounding registration. We will also discuss resident and landlord responsibilities in this process. HUD has provided a detailed description of distinctions, including what animals may qualify and not qualify as an ESA.   


Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

Emotional Support Animals are crucial in providing comfort and emotional assistance to individuals with diagnosed mental health conditions. Unlike Service Animals, ESAs are not trained to perform specific tasks. Instead, their primary function is to alleviate symptoms associated with emotional or psychological disabilities. This can include conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  • Prescription Requirement:

    • To qualify for an ESA, individuals must obtain a valid letter from a doctor or a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist.

    • This letter, often referred to as an ESA letter, should confirm the existence of a mental health condition and articulate how the presence of an ESA is part of the therapeutic treatment plan.

  • Housing Accommodations:

    • Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), ESAs are considered assistance animals, and landlords are required to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with ESAs, even in properties with no-pet policies.

    • Tenants are not required to pay pet fees or deposits for ESAs, as they are not classified as pets under the FHA.

Service Animals

Service Animals, on the other hand, are highly trained to perform specific tasks that assist individuals with disabilities. These tasks are directly related to the person's disability and are designed to mitigate the effects of their condition. Service Animals are not limited to specific types or breeds, and their training is tailored to the individual needs of their handlers.

  • Training Requirements:

    • Unlike ESAs, Service Animals must undergo extensive training to perform tasks directly related to the handler's disability.

    • These tasks can include guiding individuals with visual impairments, alerting them the presence of allergens, providing stability for individuals with mobility issues, and more.

Debunking the Registration Myth

One prevalent misconception among landlords and the general public is the idea of registering or certifying Service Animals or ESAs. The truth is, there is no legally recognized or required registration process for either category of assistance animals.

ESAs and Service Animals in Housing: What is required!

When it comes to housing these special animals, both the landlord and the tenant must take steps.

  • The tenant must request a reasonable accommodation from the landlord to allow the ESA in the home. 

  • Tenants must provide a letter from their doctor or mental health professional stating the need for the ESA, how long they have been a patient, and why it is necessary.  

What is required of the landlord at this point:

  • Landlords cannot require any specific training.

  • Landlords cannot require or collect pet fees, pet deposits, or additional deposits for the animal.

  • Landlords cannot enforce a “no pets” policy and refuse housing.

  • Landlords cannot refuse housing even if the landlord’s insurance does not cover a specific breed, such as a pit bull.  


While a reasonable accommodation is required in housing to allow an ESA or service animal, the resident is still responsible for the behavior and any damage caused by the animal. In navigating the distinctions between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals, it's essential to recognize the unique functions, legal requirements, and misconceptions surrounding these crucial categories of assistance animals. As a housing provider, it is important to know the laws regarding an ESA or Service Animal to avoid a costly fair housing violation. 

For Additional reading on this subject directly from HUD the following links are helpful resources:




Author: Tracy Streich, Broker/Owner