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The terms service animals and support animals are used interchangeably. The distinctions between them, however, are very important.

While it’s forgivable for those with a cursory understanding to initially believe they are one and the same, property teams would be well advised to have a firm grasp of the nuances. That’s because the questions you can ask, the documentation needed, and overall requirements to live at your property widely differ.

Both fall into the general category of assistance animals, but each play a distinctive role. Service animals must be trained to perform tasks that benefit an individual with a disability, such as a seeing-eye dog for a blind individual. The definition of a service animal comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifically limits a service animal to a dog or a miniature horse. Service animals must be trained for a specific task and property teams are only permitted to ask two questions:

  • Is the service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

Even these questions are not allowed if the disability is obvious, such as the seeing-eye dog or a dog who helps a disabled individual in a wheelchair to move about.

That's different from support animals, such as ESAs, which offer emotional support, comfort, protection, and companionship. These include support dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other rodents, fish, turtles, or other small, domesticated animals. The primary distinction here is that the owner must prove a disability and related need.

Because the need for a support animal is not as readily apparent as that of a service animal, property teams are permitted to ask those with a non-obvious disability to provide reliable documentation confirming that 1) an individual or a person in the household has a disability; and 2) that the person has a disability-related need for an assistance animal.

Although fabricated verification information, such as an inauthentic physician letter, can be an issue with support animals, property teams should treat all requests as valid and go through the proper channels to verify. Many have opted to use third-party services to help ensure a thorough and accurate review of accommodation requests. This can help mitigate liability, save time, and prevent unnecessary lost pet revenue.

While the distinctions between service and support animals are clear, some of the same concepts apply to both if they are verified and approved to live at a property.

  • Residents cannot be charged a standard pet fee for service or support animals.
  • Service and support animals are not subject to certain community pet restrictions, such as breed, weight, or age. Each is also permitted to live at rental properties that otherwise do not allow pets.
  • Limits on the number of pets do not apply to service and support animals, although residents must establish that a disability-related need exists for each animal.

Navigating service and support animals—and their various nuances—would be easier at the property level if every accommodation request was made by those with a legitimate disability and a disability-related need for an assistance animal. Unfortunately, a handful of bad actors trying to escape pet rent or escape a community's restrictions steepen the learning curve.

While communities can consider eradicating restrictions in favor of evaluating pets and animals on an individual basis—a topic for another discussion—a firm understanding of the differences between service and support animals is a solid place to start.

This is the seventh installment of a monthly series by John Bradford. Previous topics include promoting responsible pet ownership; debunking the myth of dangerous dog breeds; resident retention through pet inclusiveness; the state of pets in multifamily in 2023, the rise of pet-centric amenities, rethinking pet breed and weight restrictions, and navigating fraudulent accommodation requests for assistance animals.