First, let’s being with the meaning of an assistance animal, as defined under US law, in particular the 2013 Fair Housing Equal Opportunity Notice, FHEO, which states,

“An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that 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.”

An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a "reasonable accommodation" for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601).

The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHA and investigates claims of housing discrimination. The 2013 FHEO notice also details two essential functions of an assistance animal:

  1. It is an animal that works or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.
  2. An assistance animal may provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability.

The definition of an assistance animal is broad. Assistance animals may provide physical service, such as tasks on cue, but can also provide emotional support to the level that the animal’s support is necessary to alleviate the effects of a person’s disability.

Requesting An Assistance Animal

There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:

  • Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
  • Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person's existing disability?

A "no" answer to either of the questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD. This may mean that the person does not meet the definition of disability or that the assistance animal does not help with symptoms of the disability. If the answer is "yes" to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a "no pets" rule. The emotional support animal must alleviate, or help, some symptom(s) of the disability.

Service Animals And Emotional Support Animals

HUD’s recognition of Assistance Animals consists of both service animals and emotional support animals.

HUD’s guidance refers to “animals” in general and is not specific to a particular species, such as dog, cat, or bird. Like often the case, HUD leaves the door open on many laws or rules, allowing a gray area for flexibility and interpretation.

HUD does not list all the possible disabilities for which an assistance animal could be used. Instead, HUD says the functions include “providing emotional support to persons with disabilities who have a disability-related need for such support.” (FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). Emotional support animals have been known to assist disabled individuals with severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other emotional and psychiatric disabilities.

Service Animals Perform Common Physical Tasks

Service Animals are trained to do something, fetch something, move something, or do something on cue. Examples of tasks performed by an assistance animal include:

  • Guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision
  • Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds
  • Providing protection or rescue assistance
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Fetching items
  • And alerting persons to impending seizures

What Is An Emotional Support Animal (Also Called "Assistance Animal")

An emotional support animal is not a pet. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The person seeking the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship).

The animal is viewed as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA or FHAct) at those housing communities that have a "no pets" rule. In other words, just as a wheelchair provides a person with a physical limitation the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, an emotional support animal provides a person with a mental or psychiatric disability the same opportunity to live independently.

Most times, an emotional support animal will be seen as a reasonable accommodation for a person with such a disability. Failure to make reasonable accommodations by changing rules or policies can be a violation of the FHA unless the accommodation would be an undue financial burden on the landlord or cause a fundamental alteration to the premises.

Does An Emotional Support Animal Need Specialized Training

HUD defines an emotional support animal as an animal that "provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability." (FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). These animals do not need specialized training.

In fact, HUD states that, "[f]or purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the FHA nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified." (FHEO Notice: FHEO-2013-01 at page 2). While training is not required for an assistance animal, one court has stated that an assistance animal must facilitate the disabled person's ability to function.

Do Service Animals have priority over Emotional Support Animals during the housing accommodations process?

No!

This is a huge misunderstanding carried over from public accommodations which should not be applied to housing accommodations.

According to HUD there is no difference between a service animal or an emotional support animal for the purposes of housing and reasonable accommodations.

In fact, both emotional support animals and service animals are considered “assistance animals” for the purposes of fair housing and neither are to be treated preferentially.

Words Matter

In this regard, we need to pay attention to the words used that designate an assistance animal.

We recommend discarding the following from your professional vocabulary, as they don’t adequately describe HUD’s full definition of “assistance animal.” Since there is no legal, definition, we would recommend not using the following terms:

  • therapy dog
  • therapy pet
  • companion pet
  • and companion animal

In Summary

In summary, an assistance animal is an animal, not a pet. It is an animal that performs a task or provides emotional support that’s linked to symptoms or effects of a disability.

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