Ask Us: What are the differences between service animals and emotional support animals?

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 16, 2020

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to

SALISBURY — What laws govern service animals and emotional support animals in restaurants and grocery stores?

Federal laws, not state or local laws, set baseline regulations for the do’s and don’ts of service animals.

Service animals are defined and regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These animals have to do work or tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Generally, the animal is a dog, although there are rare exceptions for miniature horses. Emotional support provided by animals isn’t included under this rule.

This definition applies in public spaces. Service animals are allowed in all businesses, according to a pamphlet on the issue by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “No pets” rules do not apply to service animals. Identification or paperwork isn’t required for service animals.

The only reasons that a service animal can be requested to leave is for aggressive behavior or if it is not housebroken, according to the NCDHHS pamphlet. According to an ADA pamphlet, handlers are required to maintain control of their animal at all times.

Business owners can only ask a limited number of questions to people handling service animals on their premises. They can ask if the animal is needed for a disability and can inquire what the animal has been trained to do, according to the NCDHHS pamphlet.

However, business owners can’t ask for details about a person’s disability. Customers with service animals also can’t be segregated from other customers.

Businesses can face legal consequences for not following these rules. However, these privileges and rights to public spaces for service animals do not apply to emotional support animals under the ADA.

According to a January news release from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Fair Housing Act governs a different, but related, category of animals than service animals. This category doesn’t apply to public spaces like the ADA does. Instead, it applies to housing. Both service animals and emotional support animals fall into this category.

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing against individuals who have disabilities that affect a major life activity,” says the news release.

Those with a need for an assistance animal can request an exception to some rules, such as a “no pets” rule, according to a HUD page on assistance animals. The terminology used under this framework is “reasonable accommodation.”

Although the number of questions business owners can make is extremely small, housing providers can make limited requests for documentation of the need for an animal when the need for such an animal isn’t readily apparent, according to the HUD press release. Generally, that documentation would need to come from a medical professional, as opposed to a commercially available certification on the internet.

“Housing is unique, and a person with a disability that affects a major life activity might need an animal that provides support in ways that is not readily apparent to housing providers,” said Anna Maria Farias, HUD’s assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the news release. “Veterans or senior citizens may need the assistance or therapeutic support of an animal to help them cope with the symptoms of a disability that affects a major life activity.”

The last type of federal regulation comes from the Department of Transportation. The Air Carrier Access Act recognizes both service animals and emotional support animals, although airlines can request documentation for emotional support animals ahead of time.

States and local officials can pass legislation on these issues. However, if they are more restrictive than federal guidelines, the federal ones will override them. In North Carolina, there is a law that affords the same privileges to public spaces to service animals that are being trained as service animals, according to the NCDHHS pamphlet. They must be identified with vests or other garments.

The House of the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 796 in May. It set out to require the certification of emotional support animals by medical professionals to the penalty of a misdemeanor. This would affect the rental housing market, where emotional support dogs can get past other restrictions and fees for pets. Currently, the bill is in the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations.

More locally than that, “local authorities in Rowan County have no known local ordinance concerning this matter,” said Captain John Sifford of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.