Many people with disabilities benefit from having service or support animals. This article explains the difference between service and support animals and provides practical and legal information about them.
What is the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal?
People with disabilities who have service animals get some rights and legal protections through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), and other laws. Service animal protections are granted to people who meet the legal definition for having a disability. The ADA defines a disability as physical or mental impairments that substantially limit major life activities. NJLAD offers rights to many people with physical or sensory conditions, malformation, or disfigurement caused by bodily injury, birth defect, or illness. Under both federal and state law, dogs are currently the only type of service animal that is covered. The ADA does have an exception for miniature horses.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are defined as animals that a doctor or mental health professional has determined helps a person with a disability by improving at least one of their symptoms. ESAs are not legally considered service animals and do not have the same legal protections against discrimination.
Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is specially trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Under this law, it is sometimes illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in employment, public transportation, public accommodations, etc. There are no breed restrictions for service animals, as long as it is a dog that is trained specifically to help with the person’s disability. A person is allowed to have more than one service animal, but they must have care of all service animals at all times. In general, the person with a disability may be responsible for any damages their service animal causes.
New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD)
The NJLAD defines a service animal as any dog specifically trained to assist a person with a disability. This law protects against discrimination, like the ADA. It applies to housing, employers, and public facilities, among others. Examples of facilities and places that are covered include restaurants, schools, hospitals, parks, streets, etc.
Under the ADA and Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords must make reasonable accommodations to give a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the house or apartment. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment to a rule or policy that is not too burdensome on a landlord. This includes allowing service animals despite having a no-pet policy. Also, under NJLAD, landlords cannot charge a person with a disability standard animal housing fees. However, owners of the service animal can be responsible if the animal damages property or hurts someone on the property.
Employers in New Jersey sometimes must provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. An accommodation could include a service dog attending work with an employee with a disability. The employee must be in control of the service animal at all times and can be responsible if the animal causes damage to the property or hurts anyone. Additionally, a person with a disability sometimes cannot be denied a job only because of the person’s disability or because the person has a service animal. If an employee wants to bring a service animal to work, the employee should file a request with the employer and discuss the employee’s specific needs and expectations.
Public Accommodations (Businesses)
With very limited exceptions, the ADA and NJLAD ban discrimination against people with disabilities in all places of public accommodation, which includes places like restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, malls, etc. Businesses must allow service animals, even if they have a no-pets policy. Employees of the restaurant are allowed to ask if the animal is a service animal, but they are not allowed to require proof or documentation. The person with a disability must be in control of the service animal at all times.
Hotels must offer people with service animals any rooms that are available to other guests without disabilities—they cannot be restricted to pet-friendly rooms. Additionally, the hotel cannot charge the guest with the service animal an additional cleaning fee, but the guest is potentially responsible for any damage the service animal may cause.
Service animals are also generally allowed in hospitals and doctor’s offices. However, they may be excluded in certain situations where it would pose a health and safety risk to patients, such as in an operating room. It is important to keep in mind that these laws do not apply to health clinics that are funded by religious organizations.
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are not covered by the ADA or NJLAD. ESAs do not typically receive the same training that is required of service animals. An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that a treating doctor or mental health professional has determined helps a person with a disability by improving at least one symptom of that person’s disability. While it is not legally required, employers, building managers, and business owners may accommodate ESAs in certain situations.
If a person with an ESA is moving into or living in a building with a no-pet policy, the ESA is not automatically exempt from the policy. The person with an ESA should request a reasonable accommodation to allow their ESA to live in the building. The Fair Housing Act may sometimes require allowing an ESA if the request was made to the housing provider by or for a person with a disability and if the request was supported by reliable disability-related information (if the disability and the disability-related need for the animal were not apparent and the housing provider requested such information). However, the housing provider can deny the request by demonstrating certain exceptions, such as when granting the request would:
The landlord or building manager may ask for documentation from a doctor or mental health professional confirming that the person has a disability and the ESA improves at least one symptom of the disability. Even after providing documentation, a landlord can still deny the accommodation if allowing the ESA would be too burdensome on operations or meet one of the other exceptions. For more information, see HUD’s Assistance Animals guide, and the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights' 5 Things You Should Know About Emotional Support Animals in Housing guide.
Employers do not legally have to allow an ESA in the workplace, since they do not have the same protections as service animals. A valid letter from a doctor or mental health professional may help convince an employer, but it is not a guarantee.
Public Accommodations (Businesses)
ESAs are not automatically allowed in any public space, but there are many dog-friendly places that allow animals, including ESAs.
Practical Considerations and Resources
Training of Service Animals
Service animals do not need to be professionally trained, but they must be trained to help directly with a person’s disability. In general, businesses and other organizations are not allowed to require documentation that the animal was trained as a condition for entry, but service animals must have all vaccinations and licensing required for other dogs.
Where To Get Service or Emotional Support Animals
A good way to find a service animal is to contact breeders or professional trainers to purchase an already-trained dog. You can also purchase or rescue a dog, then either train the dog yourself or send the dog to a training program.
For Emotional Support Animals, you can start by speaking with a licensed professional to see if you would benefit from an ESA’s support. There are a number of organizations where you can adopt an ESA, such as North Star Pets and Animal Alliance. For more guidance on the process of getting an ESA, refer to How to Get an Emotional Support Animal in New Jersey.
Dealing With Discrimination
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of a disability or service animal, there are a number of things you can do. To start, you can file a NJLAD complaint with the NJ Division of Civil Rights within 180 days of the incident. Complete an intake form online or call the office at (973) 648-2700 (www.NJCivilRights.gov). Alternatively, within two years of the incident, you can file a case in civil court. You can also file an ADA complaint against a state or local government or a private business that serves the public. The nature of the complaint determines which agency to file with. For more information, visit ADA.gov.
For housing issues, you can file a Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) claim with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional office for New Jersey. Typically, the administrative complaint should be filed within one year of the incident, and a lawsuit should be filed within two years of the incident. This form can be mailed or emailed to the local office at [email protected] (NY Regional Office). Additionally, you can also call for an intake interview at (800) 225-5342 or for the teletypewriters at (800) 877-8339.
For employment issues, you can file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the violation or 300 days in some cases where the conduct is also covered by a state or local anti-discrimination law. The Public Portal is the online starting point; then the EEOC should contact you for an interview. For in-person complaints, appointments can be scheduled through the portal, or walk-in appointments can be taken at the Newark Area Office. The office can also be reached by telephone at (800) 669-4000 (EEOC.gov). Under NJLAD, you can also file with the NJ Division on Civil Rights within 180 days of the incident (NJDCR). The website requires that you first create an account to file an online complaint, then a DCR investigator will contact you. If accommodations are needed, the office can be reached at (833) 653-2748 or [email protected].
If you feel like you have been discriminated against because of your disability, service animal, or both, there is help available for you. The N.J. Department of Disability Services offers brochures with helpful information. You can also contact the LSNJLAWSM statewide toll-free Hotline online at www.lsnjlawhotline.org or by calling 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
This information last reviewed: Oct 2, 2023