What is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA Act)?

Emotional and Medical Support Animals and The Americans With Disabilities Act

When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was implemented more than two decades ago, the protections offered for individuals utilizing animals for medical and emotional support were limited.
Since that time, the provisions have been modified, providing a greater scope of protection for service animals (SAs) and emotional support animals (ESAs), as well as the individuals who own them or utilize their services.
There is also an often-overlooked combination between SAs and ESAs, known as psychiatric service dogs (PSDs).
It is important to understand that there is a legal difference between SAs, ESAs, and PSDs, as well as the legal protections afforded to each distinction. A brief description of each classification of animal is as follows:

Service Animals

Service animals are traditionally dogs or miniature horses that are specially trained to assist individuals with disabilities. Individuals who are deaf, blind, restricted to a wheelchair, or suffer from seizure disorders benefit tremendously from the assistance of SAs. SAs can be trained to complete specific tasks, such as retrieving medication, performing household tasks, and assisting individuals with stability and mobility.

Emotional Support Animals

Unlike SAs, ESAs are not specifically trained to perform tasks or recognize medical conditions, and, in fact, there is no requirement that ESAs be dogs. ESAs are classified as animals offering support of the individual’s emotions, comfort, and wellbeing. Under ADA guidelines, in order to be considered an ESA, the owner must have a diagnosed psychological disability or condition, such as an anxiety or personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or depression.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service dogs are a combination between SAs and ESAs in that they offer both emotional support and can be trained to recognize psychiatric episodes or destructive behaviors. To qualify for a PSD, individuals must be diagnosed with severe disorders that could place them in danger.

The ADA and ESAs

Now that we have discussed the important distinctions between SAs, ESAs, and PSDs, it is time to move on, more specifically, to a review of the protections offered to individuals with ESAs under the ADA.
After more than two decades, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled in 2010 to offer more distinction between service animals and emotional support animals.
More specifically, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) has moved to provide even greater distinction and to promote further protection for ESAs and their owners.
These more recent updates to the definition and protections have led to a greater awareness of ESAs and their importance to many individuals.
Under ADA guidelines, ESAs are not afforded some of the basic legal protections of SAs and PSDs, such as the ability to take ESAs to all public locations.
For example, SAs and PSDs are legally protected with the ability to accompany individuals to public areas, like theaters, whereas ESAs may not have the same protection. There are several specific provisions within the ADA, however, that do directly protect ESAs and their owners, including reasonable accommodation and housing.

Reasonable Accommodation

Under Title II of the ADA, individuals with ESAs must be provided reasonable accommodation for their animal as an assistive aid. As an assistive aid, ESAs are often compared to that of a wheelchair, which requires reasonable accommodation in order for an individual to enjoy certain activities.


While ESAs are not considered “service animals,” they are also not considered “pets,” because they do serve a specific purpose for the individual.
The ADA and FHA both have been updated to provide protection for individuals with ESAs from unfair housing regulations.
Individuals with verified ESAs (diagnosed and in possession of a legitimate ESA letter) cannot be denied housing, even if the housing complex or property owner has a “no pets” policy.
It is recommended that individuals with ESAs write a letter to the prospective property owner requesting reasonable accommodation for their animal based on the disability.
In order to receive the protections of the ADA, ESA owners must be able to verify there is an emotional relationship that supports their overall mental health and well-being.


Another protection under the ADA, and as part of the Housing & Urban-Rural Recovery Act of 1983, is the protection of ESA owners from fees or deposits.
Property owners cannot charge pet policy deposits and fees to individuals who are disabled and who own SAs, ESAs, or PSDs.
However, if an ESA significantly damages the property, the property owner can legally charge a fee to the individual vacating the property.

The Future of the ADA and ESAs

Several elements of the ADA and other pieces of legislation have been called into question as the use and awareness of ESAs increases.

One example is the issue of housing on college and university campuses.

Because the ADA and FHA are not always consistent in the language and definitions of SAs and ESAs, there is some question to the legality of ESAs on campuses, which are considered public places.

Court cases like United States v. University of Nebraska-Kearney and Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College address the issue of whether campus housing is classified as a “dwelling” under the ADA and FHA and whether SAs and ESAs should be allowed in classrooms and public areas.

Another area of concern is the use of ESAs in the workplace.

Because ESAs are not given the same protections under the ADA as SAs, there is some confusion regarding the use of ESAs, the legal rights of employers, and the legal rights and responsibilities of ESA owners.

Because of these cases and other factors, many believe that the ADA should be further assessed and revised to address the distinction between SAs, ESAs, and PSDs; their use; and the protections that should be afforded to the individuals with disabilities who benefit from them.
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  • Samantha Adcock says:

    There is a fine between an ESA and a Psychiatric Service Dog. Where an ESA could potentially be prohibited from public venues, a Service Animal cannot.
    If your dog has been trained to perform services such as alerting you to COPD triggers, reminding you to take your medication or warn you of an impending panic attack it may quality as a Service Animal.

  • Andy says:

    Under the recommendation of my family doctor (FNP) I was giving a letter and script for an emotional support animal. When I went to talk to my landlord she was rude and said I needed a ton of proof that for over a year I have been diagnosed. It may be in my doctors notes that I have sever anxiety but we are just not treating me. I did have meds I was given after the birth of both children for depression but they made me feel terrible so I stopped using them. So I guess my question is… Can she denie my request for reasonable acomidations for a ESA if I have a doctors prescription ?

  • kayla says:

    I have anxiety and already have an emotional support cat would it be possible to register a second emotional support animal or are people limited to one?

  • Amanda says:

    My 3yr old has Sensory Processing Disorder. At times it can be extreme, to the point of her hurting herself or even passing out. Do you know if they make service dogs to recognize these types of behaviors? (for instance, if she’s overwhelmed could a dog be trained to recognize this before she starts slamming her head into a wall or biting herself?)

    • Amanda says:

      I should also add that she has severe anxiety and social anxiety. She can not handle loud, busy places with lots of people.

    • minlee says:

      Amanda, there are service dogs that are trained to address many different issues. We suggest that you investigate this through service animal websites. We address emotional support animals that are different from service animals as ESAs are not specifically trained to complete specific tasks like service dogs are. Good luck with your daughter, Amanda. Our hearts go out to her.

  • Linda W. says:

    I have my Maltese registered as my ESA but I don’t have a doctors note. Is it a law I have the doctors note? We are attending an outing in a park, put on by the county, tomorrow and they specify No Pets Allowed. I cannot stay if they won’t allow my dog to be with me. I have severe COPD and I suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes I can’t get my breath and feel no one sees me because I sit low in a mobility cart. With my pet, I’m never alone and more people see me because they see my baby first. I don’t feel so isolated. My Maltese only weighs 3 lbs and is as big as she’s ever going to get. She is harmless unless you consider licking dangerous. Please let me know as soon as possible.

    • Hi Linda. Even if you have registered your Maltese, it is not legally an Emotional Support Animal without a recommendation/prescription letter from a Licensed Mental Health Professional or Physician. There are a number of sites that simply register the animal. These are generally regarded as scam sites, as a registration is not the legal requirement or legally recognized per the Americans with Disabilities Act, Air Carrier Access Act or Fair Housing Act.

  • Correy says:

    Hi I’ve had my emotional support animal through my mental health for roughly eight years now. But I was givin this Animal by a friend when she was 6 weeks old and I was trying to drink myself to death in New Orleans to help me rebound and get my life straight. Over the past few years I’ve been having a problem with her escaping a fenced-in yard when I’m not around and the animal police are threatening to keep her and not her return her to me. Is that legal to do with an emotional support animal? I spent 12 years living on the streets I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and explosive anger disorder. She has been a blessing for me the last 11 years we have been together and losing her will be devastating to me, even though she will die someday and that will be hard someday atleast I will be there comfort her.

    • CertaPet says:

      Unfortunately, yes. ESAs are required to be controlled and properly kept. There is precedence in case law regarding the expectations around the companion animals. These include repercussions regarding excessively disruptive or destructive animals and may extend to animals that place an undue burden on the public.

  • Lauren A. Shepherd says:

    My dog is certified as an ESA. I have panic disorder and a walking disability and he is a comfort to me. My husband and I are homeowners and we no longer fly anywhere, because we are 80+ years old, and the only time I leave the house is to go grocery shopping. Our store has allowed me to have him on my lap as I shop (I use an Amigo electric cart) until a couple of months ago when he got frightened and barked for a moment. Now the manager will not allow me to have him with me. Is there anything I can do to be able to have him with me? He is a great comfort.

  • Heather Lancaster says:

    I have a rabbit as an ESA. 6yrs old. Raised from 3 months. He has been my companion. I have lost more people in my life! Then add trauma of abuse from employers that have strong A type personality that down grade me, verbally abuse me. My mind finally went into protection mode, and me into many panic attacks. I withdrew from people. However, having this rabbit changed my life!! I began taking him out with me, and I saw he was a bridge to connecting to people, but causing THEM to soften before we talked. This opened me up to step back out and trust people again. When I had shut downs, each time I embraced him, deep inside me, I would feel this peace that seemed to wash away fears. Because I finally had one friend who would NEVER YELL AT ME!! Would kiss my face!! Would never walk away when I had a bad day!! In my hardest moment when I couldn’t move due to my mind closing down my actions for a moment from a trauma news, it was the touch of my rabbit that popped me out of it. Nothing else worked. Because again! I knew deep inside, HE wasn’t leaving! Just because others were. I still had him. So I was ok! — now I take him everywhere!!! I am a totally different person!!!! Only every once in a while I have a panic episode. I grab him, and hold him close till I settle down. HOWEVER…….
    I have moved to a new county, the people here in some towns are harsh and cruel against poor and people who are different and emotionally unstable.. I have been attacked!! Kicked out!! Disrespected!!
    I can’t leave my rabbit home! This defeats the perpose of why I have him!
    I need the people who set up this system, to realize how important this is to people!!! How much it really effects people’s life’s!!!! That putting restrictions on us, is like making the actual people stay inside their house all day!!!! Do you want to help them or not????
    Because I stepped out, walked every day up and down in shops, with my rabbit, took him everywhere, I changed from a fear based lonely isolated abused person who was waiting for the next person to abuse me again!!— to a happy lady who was excited to meet people, and see who she could encourage out there!!!! I changed!!!!!! In fact, I got a second rabbit to train as a theraphy bunny for other people to hold!!! So other people can experience this peace!!!! I get countless positive comments in the bayarea of San Jose CA over this!!! They can’t just be restricted to my room!!! how else am I suppose to heal if this is all I have????

  • Chanel says:

    My grandmother moved into an apartment that requires a high pet deposit but is on disability and cannot pay. Plus $25 monthly pet rent. She still had her cat with her and than ended up getting fines the $400 for the unauthorized pet. Since then I have taken the cat into my home. But it’s hard because she misses her dearly and always tells me she is lonely and wants her back. She does have mental disorders that she shes a doctor for, anxiety, manic depressive disorder, and bi-polar. I am hoping I cann register the cat as a emotional support and she can have her without having to pay deposit plus monthly fee that she can not afford. Do you think this is possible still?

    • certapet says:

      Send us an email at [email protected]. If you mother struggles with a mental or emotional disability we will definetely be able to connect her with the right person. Once she gets a recommendation letter, she will be protected under the Fair Housing Act, and will be able to leave with her pet, without paying hefty fines.

    • Haley says:

      Manic depressive disorder IS bipolar disorder. They are the same thing. But regardless, you couldn’t get her permission for her- she would need to seek out her own letter & mental health services. If she truly is bopolar, she would have a psychiatrist already as these people cannot function w/o meds.

      • Teri says:

        Yes she would have a psychiatrist. But you are wrong Haley! I am bipolar with other emotional issues and not on meds because of my support animal. Some of THESE people as you call us can function w/o meds! Get your facts straight before commenting on US people

      • Chris says:

        Not all Bipolar individuals take medication, especially if coping abilities are achieved within their environment. Using a emotional supportive animal is extremely helpful because it allows the calmness in an environmental situation that can actually increase their activities of that “in the moment” event. Touching, smelling and holding a comfort support animal can be wall-breaking and allow that person to relax and reduce the episode and allow them to stop, think and react differently then they would in the heat of the moment. Remember, walk in the shoes of that person… everyone wears a different size. Unfortunately every situation is different, nothing presents the same and no condition is treated the same. (just my opinion) It is very hard to understand the individual event, especially if you are not the person experiencing it. (Outside persons do not factor into that consideration, the individual is the person, who matters.)

  • JoAnn Blang says:

    Our RV park has a 40 lb ruling on dogs in the park. A resident has a husky malamute dog. they claim that it is a companion animal. Can the manager request certification that they do indeed need a companion dog. The dog is in the pen most of the day . Does an individual have to show proof that the animal is a companion animal?

    • certapet says:

      Landlords can ask for additional paperwork but if you have specific legal questions, I suggest you speak with a lawyer that is knowledgable about tenant law. In the meantime, you can check out this guide.