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What is the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal

Emotional support animals seem to be everywhere. We see them on planes, in restaurants, and other businesses. Places that were once off-limits to animals have “gone to the dogs.” What do you do, however, when your employee requests to bring their emotional support animal to work? What does an employer need to do when they receive this request? Understanding the difference between “service animal” and “emotional therapy animal” is an important first step.

The Americans with Disability Act

The Americans with Disability Act (the “ADA”) defines a “service animal” as one that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. Some common examples include the “seeing eye” dog or a dog that is trained to notice when a person is having a seizure. The ADA specifically limits service animals to two species–dogs and miniature horses.

Under the ADA, an animal only qualifies as a service animal if its work or task is directly related to the person’s disability. The employer needs to focus on the task the service animal is trained to complete when making their evaluation.

An employee requesting to bring a service animal to the workplace would trigger an employer’s responsibility to follow the regular ADA interactive process. Absent any safety, public or business-specific concerns, an employee who has a disability that requires a service animal would usually be deemed a reasonable request.

Emotional Support Animals

The ADA does not provide a definition for an “emotional support animal.” In most cases, emotional support animals are not trained to perform a specific task. Instead, these animals provide comfort or emotional support to their owner. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not limited to dogs and miniature horses. It is important to note that a doctor’s letter stating the person needs an emotional support dog does not qualify the dog as a service animal under the ADA.

What do you do when someone asks to bring in their emotional support animals? I would suggest you start the interactive process with the employee. Keeping in mind emotional support animals do not enjoy the same endorsement under the ADA as service animals. It is likely that there may be other, less burdensome accommodations available. You may also request documentation as to what task the animal performs. If the animal poses an undue hardship or direct threat in the workplace, the employer will usually have wider latitude to deny the request.

Of course, as with any accommodation request, there are no clear-cut answers. Be consistent in promptly addressing a request for an accommodation.


About the Author: Alejandro Pérez is a partner at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. He assists clients with employment law issues including hiring, termination, employee discipline, paid sick time, leaves of absence, wage and hour compliance, and whistle-blower liability.