The Difference Between “Service Animals” and “Pets”

It’s important for landlord’s to know that service animals are not treated the same as pets. A lot of landlords get in trouble with Fair Housing and the ADA because they don’t know how to properly handle service animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as, “Any animal that is individually trained to do work or person tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.”


A service animal is usually, but not always, a dog. Other service animals could be cats and/or birds. If the animal meets the ADA’s definition, the animal is considered a service animal, regardless of their lack of license or certification by the state or local government. Under law, the service animal does not have to wear any specific type of identification making it obvious that it’s a service animal.

Service animals are permitted wherever customers are naturally allowed. This includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Grocery Stores
  • Restaurants
  • Apartments
  • Homes
  • Farmer’s Markets
  • Movie Theatres
  • Museums
  • Etc.

Service animals are not considered to be pets because a person with a disability uses the service animal as an auxiliary aid, much like the use of a cane, wheelchair or crutches.  For this reason, fair housing laws require landlords to modify their “no pet” policies to allow the use of service animals by those with disabilities.

Once the applicant or tenant has provided documentation from a healthcare provider, pet fees and/or deposits cannot be charged because a service animal is not considered a pet.

There are different types of service animals:

  • A guide animal- for those who are visually impaired or legally blind
  • A hearing animal – for those who are hard of hearing or deaf to be notified of a door bell, phone or fire alarm
  • A service animal – for those who have mobility or health issues.
  • A seizure response animal – for those that may have a seizure disorder
  • A companion animal or emotional support  animal””for those with psychological disabilities.

You may require the tenant to provide written verification that they have a disability (though you cannot ask what type) and that the accommodation is necessary. The tenant will need to provide you a signed letter on a professional letterhead from their healthcare provider answering the following questions:

  1. “Is the person disabled as defined by the fair housing laws? “
  2. “In the healthcare provider’s professional opinion, does the person need the requested use of the service animal to have the same opportunity as a non-disabled person to use and enjoy the housing community?”

The individual with the service animal is still responsible for taking care of the animal and can be held accountable for any damages that may occur.

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