Service and Therapy Animals: Facts and Information

Author: Disabled World - Contact Details
Updated/Revised Date: 2022/04/06
On This Page: Main Article - Subtopics - About

Synopsis: Provides general information and explains the difference between service and therapy animals and their intended assistance purposes for the benefit of people. Service animals are also called assistance animals, assist animals, or helper animals. The U.S. Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to permit service animals, without species restrictions, in housing.


Main Document

Defining Assistance, Emotional Support, Therapy, and Service Animals

Assistance Animals

Animals who perform a task that may alleviate the effects or symptoms of a specific disability. These animals may not be formally trained, but the assistance must be necessary to allow the individual to live independently. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that these animals be allowed as reasonable accommodation in rental properties.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

ESA's may be animals of any species that need not perform any specific tasks, but whose use is deemed necessary by a qualified professional for an individual to manage certain disability related needs. Often called "comfort animals," they are not considered service animals under the ADA, which has specific language stating: "The crime-deterrent effects of an animal's presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition." However, they may be permitted as reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act, as well as the Air Carrier Access Act.

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A service dog happily greets his owner at the edge of a swimming pool.
A service dog happily greets his owner at the edge of a swimming pool.

Therapy Animals

These animals are used by trained individuals (including psychologists and therapists) in the context of treating people with medical or psychological conditions, as well as in specific goal-directed therapy such as encouraging people to walk, read, or process traumatic experiences. The facilities and locations in which they are used have their regulations as to screening and training requirements. An example of therapy animals are therapy cats, often used for emotional support and comfort.

Therapy Cats

A therapy cat is defined as a cat trained to help humans in a medically beneficial way, to take advantage of the human-animal interaction for purposes of relaxation and healing. A therapy cat provides affection and comfort to people in retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, and other human service care facilities. Although dogs have more traditionally been recruited as therapy animals, and horses are the second most favored, cats are now beginning to be used more and more.

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Service Dogs

Dogs specifically trained to do work or complete tasks for individuals with specific disabilities. The work must be directly related to the disability and the dogs, as well as their humans, usually go through extensive training in a variety of situations. Some examples are seeing eye dogs, hearing alert dogs and seizure alert dogs. Recently, miniature ponies have been added as an explicit provision. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990), as defined in section 36.104 of the title III regulation, a service animal includes any animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Fines for businesses not compliant with the ADA are quite high. This category has been around for some time, and many establishments have signs allowing service animals.

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Service Animals

An assistance animal, or service animal, is defined as an animal trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other special tasks. Many are trained by a specific organization, while others are trained by their handler (sometimes thanks to a professional trainer). Typically, a potential service animal undergoes extensive behavioral testing before being accepted into a training program.

Therapy Animal

A therapy animal is defined as an animal trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, people with learning difficulties, and stressful situations, such as disaster areas. Therapy animals come in all sizes and breeds. The most important characteristic of a therapy, or service animal, is its temperament. A good service, or therapy, animal must be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, and at ease in all situations. Therapy animals must enjoy human contact and be content to be petted and handled, sometimes clumsily. A therapy animal's primary job is to allow unfamiliar people to make physical contact with it and to enjoy that contact.

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Ginger is an Orange Tabby Therapy Cat.
Ginger is an Orange Tabby Therapy Cat.

Types of Therapy Animals

Most people are familiar with Service Dogs, such as Guide Dogs for those who are blind and Hearing Dogs for those who are deaf. Yet, we often do not realize that, Service animals are not limited to animals that assist people with hearing or sight impairments, but also include those that otherwise assist individuals with disabilities.

Although a service animal is most often a dog, it can also be another kind of animal such as a cat, bird, miniature horse, monkey, or pig.

Service animals perform some functions and tasks that the individual with a disability cannot perform independently.


In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits any business, government agency, or other organization that provides access to the public from barring guide dogs. As such, businesses must allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals with them, wherever customers are normally allowed. However, religious organizations are not required to provide such access.

Current U.S. federal regulations define a "service animal" for ADA purposes to exclude all species of animals other than domestic dogs and miniature horses. Other laws, though, still provide broader definitions in other areas. For instance, the Department of Transportation's regulations enacting the Air Carrier Access Act permit "dogs and other service animals" to accompany passengers on commercial airlines.

The Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to permit service animals (including comfort and emotional support animals) without species restrictions in housing.

It is always a good idea, when making hotel reservations, to inform them of your specific disability and that you are being accompanied by a service dog. Even if a hotel or restaurant has a "no pets" policy, this never applies to service animals.

In many areas of the world, assistance dogs are not required to have any sort of "certification" or proof of their training; however, most programs voluntarily certify their dogs, and many wear a harness or cape to identify them.

Above all, a service animal is not a pet, although its owners probably love the animal.

If you see someone with a service animal, always ask for permission before petting or handling it, and be aware that if the animal is working, you may not be allowed to touch it.

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