Service Animals vs. Support Animals: One of These is Not Like the Other

by Mike Shytle

For those who aren’t in the publication industry, a blog, feature and press release all might mean the same thing. Non-sports fans sometimes refer to baseball scores as points rather than runs, while others sometimes use rehearsal and concert interchangeably. 

Countless other terms are regularly confused for one another, and those who aren’t sticklers usually let the mistaken term pass without mentioning it. The same holds true for service and support animals, as they are largely regarded as the same thing. In the property management world, however, it’s crucial to distinguish between them. 

Each falls into the broad category of assistance animals, but the questions property teams can ask about service and support animals, the documentation needed and the overall requirements to live at a rental community vastly differ for each type. 

Here is a snapshot of the differences:

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, and the ADA 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: 1) Is the service animal required because of a disability? And 2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? 

Of note, 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.

Support animals, which offer emotional support, comfort, protection and companionship, fall into a less rigid category. These include support dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other rodents, fish, turtles, or other small, domesticated animals. The qualifying factor with support animals is that the owner must prove a disability and related need because the need is not as readily apparent as that of someone who utilizes a service animal.

For residents with a non-obvious disability wishing to live with a support animal, property teams may request reliable documentation confirming that the resident has a disability and a disability-related need for the animal. It is important to note that for either type of assistance animal, residents cannot be charged a standard pet fee, and neither service nor support animals are subject to a community’s pet restrictions, such as breed, weight or age or number of pets allowed per household. Service and support animals are also permitted to live at rental properties that otherwise do not allow pets.

One note of advice: property teams should treat all assistance animal requests as valid, even though fraudulent accommodation requests can be an issue with support animals. With proper protocols in place, property teams can easily identify items such as inauthentic physician letters or other forms of fake documentation. 

While verifying accommodation requests can be a stress for onsite teams, properties can partner with services thoroughly trained to provide an accurate review. In addition to removing the onus from onsite teams, this can help properties mitigate liability and preserve pet revenue from pets who would have otherwise been sneaked in under the guise of being an assistance animal. 

Although the terms are often intermingled, properties must have a firm grasp of the distinctions between service and support animals. It’s OK if you refer to a sweatshirt as a sweater or a townhome as a condo if you’re among friends, but onsite personnel must be able to accurately distinguish between service and support animals.

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