The intelligence, intuition and emotional connection displayed by trained service animals is remarkable. Service animals have been known to predict impending seizures, perform complex household tasks, protect their companions from oncoming traffic and even provide a calming influence for sufferers of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder. Registered service animals, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, are limited to canines and miniatures horses, and are required to endure months of rigorous training to qualify for a service role.

In contrast, emotional support animals, or ESAs, may be untrained members of almost any animal species who are said to provide some therapeutic benefit to their human companions. Applications for ESA certifications are up 279 percent since 2011, reflecting a huge increase in this trend. But how, exactly, does an ESA differ from a registered service animal? And, for a landlord faced with a prospective renter demanding tenant rights to fair housing, what reasonable requirements are necessary under the ADA and the Fair Housing Act?

Service animal vs. emotional support animal

The overarching difference between a service animal and an ESA is training. A service animal must undergo a lengthy preparation and evaluation process, while an ESA does not require a single day of doggy school. In fact, an ESA need not even be a dog.

Service animals

According to the ADA, service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The emphasis here is on the word “trained.” A service animal is generally required to complete a complex and diversified training program, typically beginning in puppyhood and lasting at least two years.

Upon completion of this training, the animal must also be certified by the state regulatory agency. Then the animal is granted “public access,” meaning “state and local governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go.”

Gray area: Assistance animals

The Federal Housing Administration maintains a somewhat more inclusive definition of service animals and refers instead to “assistance animals.” As a landlord, you should understand this definition because penalties for refusing access to a real assistance animal can be extreme. In general, you must make reasonable accommodations for an assistance animal even if your property maintains a no-pets policy.

Unlike the definition set forth in the ADA, an assistance animal does not have to be trained for a particular set of tasks as long as the animal “works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”

Emotional support animals

An emotional support animal, as traditionally regarded within the service animal community, is an animal without specialized training that serves as a companion for those suffering from the effects of certain mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. The term is not recognized by the ADA and is only vaguely mentioned in some interpretations of the Fair Housing Act.

However, the “emotional support” referred to in the ADA-approved definition above pertains to mental health assistance provided by the animal to an owner suffering from the emotional side effects of an underlying recognized disability, including PTSD or autism. To obtain certification as an ESA, which is a wildly unregulated frontier, an owner need not suffer from an underlying disability as long as he experiences regular bouts of anxiety or emotional instability.

Landlord’s responsibilities and obligations

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has issued several interpretive statements regarding a landlord’s duties with regard to renters seeking accommodation for an assistance animal. First, you may not ask for documentation if the disability is obvious or apparent. If the disability is not obvious, you can ask only these two questions:

  • Does the applicant have a disability as defined by the ADA?
  • Does the applicant have a disability-related need for an assistance animal?

If the answer to either of the above questions is “no,” you are within your rights to deny the request for a waiver of your no-pets policy. In making that decision, you can request medical documentation from a licensed doctor indicating that the applicant does, in fact, suffer from a disability, though you cannot ask to review the applicant’s medical records.

For emotional support animals, you only need to make a reasonable accommodation if the support is needed to relieve the effects of a pre-existing disability; again, you can request documentation. Emotional support animals that only serve to make the owner more comfortable, alleviate stress or lessen anxiety symptoms may be excluded if the owner is not actually suffering from a documented disability.

On the other hand, you must accommodate a support animal, even if untrained, that provides stability for a renter with a documented mental or psychiatric disability.

You also may not impose weight or size restrictions on an assistance animal, provided the animal can be kept on the property without lowering the property value or creating undue financial hardship.