Animal Law

Emotional Support Animals

By: Dan Rich
Clark, Campbell, Lancaster & Munson, P.A.

Q: What is an emotional support animal, and how does it differ from a service animal?

 A: Have you ever walked into a restaurant to see a teacup Chihuahua locking eyes with you from across the room? If so, you probably were wondering how this precious little guy’s owner was able to bring an animal into an eating establishment. It may be because this Chihuahua has been labelled as his owner’s emotional support animal, or “ESA”. Americans commonly treat their pets as another member of the family. But while most keep their pets at home, some bring their pets everywhere they go, including local businesses.

While ESAs are recognized under federal law, they do not have unfettered access. Federal law currently requires accommodations for ESAs in housing decisions and when traveling on an airplane. A claim that an ESA has a right to be in a public place is misguided, because an ESA differs from a service animal. A service animal is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability,” whereas an ESA “provides a therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental disability.” Under federal law, a service animal is permitted to go anywhere, including public places.

When a business is faced with a pet owner attempting to make reservations for himself and his dog, the business must quickly decide whether it is dealing with a service animal or an ESA. To help decide, the law permits the business to ask the following, and only the following, two questions:

  1. Whether the animal is required because of a disability; and
  2. What “work or task” the animal has been trained to perform.

Under Florida law, if access is denied and the animal was in fact a service animal, a public establishment can face criminal penalties. Most businesses prudently open the floodgates to most pets with legally sufficient answers to the above questions, because doing so is safer then facing criminal prosecution.

While emotional support from an animal can be a wonderful and necessary thing, it causes a rift among the service animal community. Mislabeled ESAs can be disruptive and disobedient, in turn stigmatizing service animals and their disabled owners.

Affected businesses should consider investing resources to train their employees to properly address requests for animal accommodation.

The February 11th edition of “The Law” will discuss the tax benefits of a 1031 exchange when buying and selling real estate.

 Dan Rich is an attorney with the Lakeland law firm Clark, Campbell, Lancaster & Munson, P.A. Questions can be submitted online to