A golden retriever is sitting and wearing a red and black vest that says "Service dog"

Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals

Do you have an animal that is part of your medical treatment plan? Many people with disabilities use animals for a variety of reasons. For example, a guide dog is a service animal trained to help a person who has a vision impairment navigate his or her world. A service animal can also include a dog trained to provide pressure on someone with PTSD who is suffering from a panic attack.

As of March 15, 2011, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. And, the service animal's tasks must directly relate to the person's disability.

For individuals diagnosed with cancer, a service animal can provide a broad range of assistance. For example, a service animal can alert their owner to take medication, or it can perform certain tasks to help an individual with limited mobility, such as picking up dropped items or carrying objects.

An emotional support animal could be an untrained cat that provides comfort by sitting in the lap of an individual experiencing anxiety.

Service animals and emotional support animals perform different roles and are therefore treated differently by the law. Under Title III of the ADA, an emotional support animal is not a service animal, because it is not trained to perform tasks related to a person's disability.

Note: the ADA has a separate rule about miniature horses that have been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Some states and local laws may define a service animal more broadly than the ADA does. You can get information about those laws from your state’s attorney general’s office.

Workplace Accommodations

While Title II and Title III define service animals, the employment provisions of the ADA do not specifically address animals in the workplace. Therefore, asking to bring a service animal or an emotional support animal to work is treated as a regular request for a reasonable accommodation. Requesting and receiving an accommodation is an interactive process, so employers may ask to test the animal in the workplace for one day to see if any dangers or difficulties may arise.

When evaluating a reasonable accommodation request, an employer can ask for supporting information concerning the disability and the need for a service or emotional support animal. This information is provided by a licensed health care professional connecting the disability to the need for an animal.

For more information on how to request an accommodation in the workplace, read our Quick Guide to the ADA and Reasonable Accommodations.

Housing Accommodations

Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), individuals with disabilities may request both service animals and emotional support animals as a reasonable accommodation. The FHA makes it unlawful for a housing provider to refuse to grant a reasonable accommodation request that a person with a disability may need to have so he or she has an equal opportunity to housing. Therefore, a housing provider must modify “no-animal policies” when needed.

When evaluating a reasonable accommodation request, a housing provider can ask for supporting information concerning the disability and the need for a service or emotional support animal. This information is provided by a licensed health care professional connecting the disability and the need for an animal.

Other Public Places

The ADA requires that state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public to allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where the public is allowed to go.  For example, this could be a restaurant’s dining area, but not the kitchen.

Staff at these public places may ask only two questions concerning a service animal: (1) is the animal a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform. Staff are not allowed to request any documentation, ask the animal to demonstrate its task, or inquire about a person’s disability.

Finally, public places do not have to permit emotional support animals on their premises.


The ADA specifically mentions that hospitals and health care provider officers are public areas where service animals are permitted. But because hospitals seek to prevent the spread of infection, introducing service animals may pose a challenge.

As a result, service animals are allowed anywhere visitors are allowed without special precautions. This could include patient rooms, the cafeteria, or waiting areas. However, visitors are not allowed in areas that require a sterile environment (e.g., an operating room) and medical precautions such as masks or special clothing.

Because emotional support animals are not included in the ADA’s definition of service animal, hospitals are not required to allow an emotional support animal onto their premises.


In December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) released a final rule for the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This rule defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. This aligns the DOT’s definition of “service animal” with the ADA.

The rule also clarified that emotional support animals (ESAs), comfort animals, companionship animals, animals being trained to be service animals, and species other than dogs are not considered “service animals,” and are treated as pets.

Some airlines now require passengers with service dogs to complete a DOT-authorized form prior to travel that confirms their training, health, and certification.

More information about the ADA and service and support animals

About Triage Cancer

Triage Cancer is a national, nonprofit providing free education to people diagnosed with cancer, caregivers, and health care professionals on cancer-related legal and practical issues. Through eventsmaterials, and resources, Triage Cancer is dedicated to helping people move beyond diagnosis.

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