Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals: What’s the Difference?

senior man sitting with service dog

If you need the assistance of an animal to alleviate the symptoms or effects of a disability (or even to detect covid-19!), it is important to understand that there are different categories of assistance animals, and how your animal is defined will impact how your request for an accommodation for your animal will be treated under the law. In guidance released in January 2020, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development stated that there are two types of assistance animals: service animals; and other animals that “do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.” Animals in this second group are referred to as “support animals” or “emotional support animals.” An experienced emotional support animal law attorney can help you navigate the various laws relating to assistance animals and provide valuable assistance with your request for an accommodation for your support animal.

Federal and Florida fair housing laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, including “refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its regulations, as well as federal and state fair housing laws, define the different categories of assistance animals. Here is an overview.

Service Animals

Florida law defines a service animal as a dog (or a miniature horse) that is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Examples of such work or tasks include:

  • Guiding people who are blind or visually impaired
  • Alerting people who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Assisting with mobility or balance
  • Alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure
  • Retrieving objects
  • Alerting an individual to the presence of allergens
  • Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to an individual with a mobility disability
  • Helping an individual with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors
  • Reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications
  • Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack

Importantly, service animals are working animals, not pets. The service a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort, companionship, emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, if they meet a disability-related need, they may qualify as emotional support animals.

Support Animals

Under Florida law, an emotional support animal is defined as “an animal that does not require training to do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, or provide therapeutic emotional support by virtue of its presence which alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.” To get an accommodation from your HOA or Condo Association, you will need to show that you have both a disability and a disability-related need for the animal. The disability can be mental or physical but must “substantially limit one or more major life activities.” The term “major life activity” is rather broad, and includes sleeping, concentration, thinking, and communicating, as well as walking, performing manual tasks, and caring for yourself.

While federal and state law allow condo owners with disabilities to seek accommodation for an “emotional support animal,” there are very specific requirements for such a request. Moreover, in a new law, effective as of July 1, 2020, Florida has made it a criminal offense to misrepresent the need for an emotional support animal. This action by the Florida legislature highlights the importance of submitting a proper, legitimate request for accommodation that fully complies with relevant laws and regulations.  Before you try to document the need for an assistance animal or request an accommodation from your Condominium Association or Homeowner Association you should first consult with an attorney experienced in the Fair Housing Act.

How an Emotional Support Animal Attorney Can Help

If you need assistance getting your support animal approved in pet-restricted housing, we welcome you to contact us at (954) 966-3909. We help you with the accommodation request from start to finish to make sure it gets done correctly and that there is written documentation of the approval.

We serve the legal needs of individual condominium owners, home owners and cooperative owners in resolving disputes with their associations throughout Florida, including Broward, Dade and Palm Beach Counties, as well as Miami, Naples, Brickell, Hollywood, Davie, Pembroke Pines, Hallandale, Sunny Isles, Aventura, North Miami, Boca Raton and West Palm Beach.  We never represent the associations or their boards so we always know who we are fighting for.

Please note that free case evaluation is by telephone and does not include legal advice.  Office consults with legal advice are available on a flat fee basis.

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