The difference between service animals, emotional support animals, and pets

Service animal

Markel insures are often faced with trying to interpret the difference between a service animal, emotional support animal or pet, and then whether it should be allowed on their premises. To help support your decision making process and to better understand your requirements when confronted with this situation, the following information is provided to help you make the best decision for your program.

According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a pet is a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility.  If the animal is identified as a “pet” you do not have to allow it to enter your business.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability. The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.

The examples provided earlier are beyond the traditional stereotypes, such as a seeing eye-dog. In fact, according to, a service animal can be any of the following:

  • Miniature horses
  • Ferrets
  • Boa constrictors
  • Parrots
  • Potbelly pigs
  • Capuchin monkeys (a South American monkey with a cap of hair on the head which has the appearance of a cowl.)

Because it may be difficult to distinguish whether an animal is a service, emotional support or pet, it is important to know how to distinguish a service animal from an emotional animal or pet.

In situations where it is not obvious that the animal is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions:

  1. Is the (blank) a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

The owner is not required to provide any documentation for the animal, to make the animal demonstrate its task, or answer questions about the nature of his/her disability.

Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered while in public places unless these devices interfere with the service animal’s work or the person’s disability prevents use of these devices.

Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center outlines that an emotional support animal is not a pet. An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The person seeking the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship).

The ADA specifically states that emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are not considered service animals. According to the ADA, these terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some state or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. 

So it is recommended that you check with your state and local government agencies to find out about these laws.


  • The Official US Service Animal & Support Animal (ESA) Registry, 2016-2019 US Support Animals Registry -
  • Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA. . July 20, 2015
  • Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center. /


Service animal
The information provided in this article is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as all encompassing, or suitable for all situations, conditions, and environments. Please contact us at or your attorney if you have any questions. The article may not be linked to, copied, reproduced, republished, posted, or distributed in any way by non-policyholders of Markel®, without permission.