Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals and Therapy Animals: Definitions and Applicable Laws

People with physical or mental disabilities can benefit greatly from the help of “service animals” or “emotional support animals” (ESAs).  Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Additionally, “therapy animals” are used in a variety of settings to provide comfort to members of the public. This guide explains the difference between service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals and reviews the laws that apply to each.

What is a service animal?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  See more about this definition here.  In some cases, miniature horses will also be considered service animals.  Other than dogs and miniature horses, no other type of animal is ever recognized as a service animal under federal law.  To be qualified to have a service animal, a person must be disabled as defined by the ADA.  Under the ADA, a person with a disability is “someone who has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity.”  Learn more about this definition here.

Ohio law is more generous and allows other types of animals such as monkeys to qualify as service animals.  Ohio calls these animals “assistants” and states that “an animal assistant is any animal that assists a person with a disability.”

What is an emotional support animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a dog or other common domesticated animal that provides support to its handler through companionship.  While typically dogs or cats, emotional support animals may include other species. However, before any animal can be determined to be an ESA, their owner must first be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional as having a mental disability that significantly limits one or more of their daily major life activities .  See American Disability Rights for a great explanation of emotional support animals.

What is a therapy animal?

A therapy animal is an animal that provides affection and comfort to members of the public, typically in a facility like a hospital, nursing home, rehabilitation center, school and many of the Ronald McDonald Houses. The handler/owner of a therapy animal is not necessarily disabled, and therapy animals do not provide support to just one individual person. Therapy animals are not protected by laws that apply to service animals and emotional support animals and therefore do not have right of access other than what applies to ordinary pets.

What laws govern the use of service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals?

Both federal and state laws can provide protections to people with disabilities to allow them to use service animals or emotional support animals in certain places.  If state law differs from federal law, the law that provides the most protection for the individual with the disability will be used. The laws that allow service animals and emotional support animals access to certain places do not apply to therapy animals.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – Various titles of the ADA allow people with disabilities to have service dogs in certain places.  Title II allows them in government buildings and Title III allows them in public accommodations.  Although Title I of the ADA does not specifically mention service animals, it requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities.  A service animal is typically considered a reasonable accommodation and will therefore normally be allowed in the workplace.  The ADA does not provide any protections for emotional support animals.

Fair Housing Act (FHA) – The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that provides tenants throughout the United States with protection from housing discrimination. The FHA requires most property owners to make reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities.  Some property owners/landlords are exempt from the FHA.  Click here to see the exemptions.  For those properties governed by the FHA, both service animals and emotional support animals are considered reasonable accommodations and are therefore allowed.

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) – The ACAA allows disabled people to have both service animals and emotional support animals on the plane with them in the passenger cabin at no extra cost.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)IDEA gives students with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Qualified special education students may be allowed to have service animals in school as part of their IEP.  IDEA does not cover emotional Support Animals.

Ohio Revised Code and Ohio Administrative Code – Both the Ohio Revised Code and the Ohio Administrative Code have laws that allow people with disabilities to have service animals in places of public accommodations.  Neither of these laws provide protections for emotional support animals in public places.

Are service animals and emotional support animals pets?

Service animals are never considered pets.  Emotional support animals are considered pets in most instances.  The two areas where emotional support animals are not considered pets are reasonable accommodations in housing and air travel.   

Must service animals and emotional support animals be trained, certified, or registered?

Service animals must be trained to perform a task or an activity for a specific individual with a disability.  Emotional support animals do not have to be specifically trained.  Certification and registration is not required for either service animals or emotional support animals and you should be suspicious of organizations that claim to provide such certifications or registrations.

Can my employer refuse to let me have my service animal or emotional support animal at work?

Under Title I of the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities.  A service animal is typically considered a reasonable accommodation in the workplace for a person with a disability and is therefore usually allowed.

In the workplace an emotional support animal is simply a pet. Unless the employer has a policy that allows pets in the workplace, an emotional support animal can be banned.

Can I bring my service animal or emotional support animal to a restaurant, grocery store, mall, and other places of public accommodation?

Under ADA Title III, a service animal is allowed in public accommodations in areas that are open to the public.

ADA Title III does not provide any protections or rights for individuals with emotional support animals in public accommodations.  Additionally, there are no Ohio laws that allow for emotional support animals in these public spaces.

Can my landlord refuse to let me have a service animal or emotional support animal in my apartment?

In most cases the answer is no. Under the FHA, service animals and emotional support animals are both considered reasonable accommodations and must be allowed. Remember that there are limited types of property that may be exempt from the FHA. Additionally, if the landlord can prove that the animal creates an undue financial or administrative burden, poses a direct threat to the health, safety or property of others, or fundamentally changes the nature of the property, the landlord may be able to deny the animal.

Can a landlord charge me extra money or a pet fee/deposit for having a service animal or emotional support animal?

No. Since these animals are not pets, pet fees and deposits are not allowed.  If however the service animal or emotional support animal causes damage to the property, the landlord has the right to charge the owner/handler for the damages.

Can I take my service animal or emotional support animal on an airplane with me?

Yes.  The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows individuals with disabilities to have service animals and emotional support animals on the plane with them.  Note that commercial airlines can restrict the types of emotional support animals that are allowed.  Certain very large animals, and animals that may present a health and safety risk to others may be banned. Additionally, airlines are never required to allow rodents, snakes, and other reptiles as emotional support animals.

Do I have to provide documentation to prove I am entitled to a service animal or emotional support animal?

Owners/handlers of service animals who help people with physical disabilities are never required to provide documentation.  In fact, the only two questions that the owner/handler of a service animal can be asked are:

1.    Is the animal required because of a disability?

2.    What specific trained task does the animal perform?

Owners/handlers of emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals may be asked to provide a letter from a medical provider stating the need for the emotional support animal or psychiatric service animal.  The letter must be no more than a year old.

What happens if someone complains about my animal because of an allergy or a fear?

In general, another person’s allergy or fear is not a valid reason to restrict a disabled person’s right to have their service animal or emotional support animal in a place they are legally allowed to be.

Do I have to clean up after my animal and am I responsible for damages?

Yes, the owner of the service or emotional support animal is responsible for keeping their animal under control, for cleaning up any mess and for damages.

Additional Resources

American Disability Rights – These heroes have four legs

Disability Rights Ohio – Service Animals

U.S. Department of Justice – FAQs about Service Animals and the ADA


This guide was developed as part of a project made possible by a grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Lead researcher/author: Helen Livingston Rapp, Esq., RedTreehouse.org Volunteer