What is the Difference between a Service Animal and an Assistance Animal?

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Although “service animal” and “assistance animal” are often used interchangeably, state and federal statutes have specific and distinct definitions for the two terms. Whether your pet can be properly classified as one or the other can affect the legal rights you may have.

“Service Animal” is a term that comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). It applies only to dogs and miniature horses that have been trained to perform a specific task for a person with a disability. If an animal meets this definition, the ADA protects your ability to bring it into a place of public accommodation, like a store or a hotel.

In contrast, “assistance animal” comes from the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”). It applies to any animal that provides a service or emotional support to someone with a physical or psychological impairment that has a substantial impact on their normal life activities. This definition is much broader than the ADA’s, but applies only to housing. More about assistance animals and the FHA.

Importantly, if a specific document — such as a lease — uses the term “service animal” or “assistance animal”, you should rely on the definition provided in the document itself, or seek clarification if no definition is provided. It is possible that the document uses the term differently than how the FHA and ADA define them.

Service Animal vs. Assistance Animal
Service Animal Assistance Animal
Locations Places of public accommodation, like a store or hotel Housing, like an apartment or single family home (with exceptions)
Types of Animals Dogs or miniature horses only Any reasonable animal
Service Provided Specific tasks directly related to an ADA-defined disability Specific tasks or emotional support for an FHA-defined disability
Recognized Disabilities A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
Training Requirement Individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities No specific training requirement
Source of Definition Americans with Disabilities Act § 36.302