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Service Animals and the Law


Federal courts in the Southeastern United States often decide cases that shape how the law treats service animals.  This brief looks at the questions courts ask about service animals.  It also explains how  the courts look at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to find answers.

The questions in this brief include:

  1. What qualifies as a service animal?
  2. Who can use a service animal?
  3. What law regulates service animals in schools?
  4. How does the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA)  regulate service animals as compared to the ADA?

What Qualifies as a Service Animal under the ADA?

Service Animals, including Miniature Horses

  • service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. 
  • The ADA also permits the use of miniature horses as alternatives to dogs, subject to certain limitations.  A public entity or private business must allow a person with a disability to bring a miniature horse on the premises as long as it has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of the individual with a disability and as long as the facility can accommodate the miniature horse’s type, size, and weight. 
  • Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not considered service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained, or untrained, are not considered service animals either. It does not matter if a person has a note from a health care provider that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.

How do courts apply the definition of Service Animal?

Federal courts in the Southeastern US have established a number of guiding principles.  These principles apply both to service dogs and miniature horses.  Most importantly, the courts have ruled that in order to be considered a service animal, an animal must receive some type of training to aid a person with a disability.  However, there are no set requirements as to amount or type of training an animal must receive, and no type of certification is required.   

Federal courts in the Southeastern US mandate that a service animal must be trained to perform a specific disability-related task to be considered a service animal.  Describing what a service animal does for its handler is usually not enough.  Instead, courts often ask to be shown how the service animal responds to specific cues or triggers. 

Additionally, the courts have ruled that in order to qualify as a service animal, the animal must be completely trained to perform specific disability-related tasks.  An animal that is still in training cannot be considered a service animal for the purposes of modifications.

For more information on miniature horses as service animals, see our brief on Court Decisions: Anderson v. City of Blue Ash

Who Can Use a Service Animal?

Language under the ADA

  • A person must have a disability as defined by the ADA in order to use their service animal in places of public accommodation or state and local government facilities.
  • The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

How do courts apply the definition?

Before the ADA was amended in 2008, many federal courts focused on how disabled an individual was when determining whether a service animal was legitimate. However, since Congress amended the ADA to broaden the definition of disability, courts are much less demanding in determining what qualifies as a disability and focus more specifically on the claimed discrimination itself. This relaxed post-2008 standard was demonstrated in 2011 with Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College
(see our brief on Court Decisions: Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College). 

Service Animals in Schools

Recently and repeatedly, federal courts have confronted issues of service animals in schools. Most importantly, the courts looked at which law applied. Could complaints be brought directly under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA? Or must students and their parents work their way through, or exhaust, all the administrative remedies available in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before they could make a claim under Section 504 and/or the ADA? To answer this question, courts thoroughly evaluated the theory of exhaustion as it relates to service animals and questions of reasonable modification.

Definition of exhaustion under the IDEA

Courts broadly rely on the theory of exhaustion under Section 1415 of the IDEA to strictly limit where and how claims can be brought on behalf of students with disabilities. Section 1415 states in part:

Disabled students and their parents must first exhaust their administrative remedies under IDEA before bringing federal claims regarding denial of publicly funded special education under §504 of the Rehabilitation Act or under the ADA.

Essentially, Section 1415 mandates that students with disabilities and their families pursue all means of resolution available to them under the IDEA before initiating legal action under Section 504 or the ADA.

How have courts applied Section 1415?

When considering Section 1415 in cases involving students with disabilities and service animals, federal courts make a critical distinction: did the claim of discrimination just happen to take place within a school or does the claim focus on the denial of a free, appropriate, public, education (FAPE) as guaranteed by the IDEA.  Most notably, the Supreme Court in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools held that the exhaustion provision is only triggered if FAPE is in question.  In that case, a student and her family filed suit under the ADA after the student was denied effective use of her service animal in school. The Supreme Court ruled that because the issue in question did not directly concern the student’s quality or effectiveness of education services provided, FAPE was not in question and a claim brought under the ADA was therefore valid (see our brief on Court Decisions: Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools).

Service Animals and Housing

Many of the disputes involving service animals in federal circuits revolve around whether individuals are entitled to use emotional support animals in the home (i.e., often apartment complexes or condominiums that do not otherwise allow pets). These cases look at the assistance animal provisions of the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA).

How does the FHAA compare to the ADA where service animals are concerned?

  • Housing is covered by the FHAA, not the ADA. 
  • The FHAA has a broader definition of the type of animals it protects. The FHAA uses the term ‘assistance animal’ and includes ‘emotional support animals’ in its protections.  It also does not limit the type of animal defined as an ‘assistance animal.’
  • When courts evaluate assistance animals cases under the FHAA, the individual must prove that the landlord, home owners’ association, or local zoning boards were notified of the need for a modification of a “no pets” policy. In contrast, the ADA does not require this step, noting that service animals should generally be allowed wherever the public is allowed.   
  • Under the FHAA, once landlords or zoning boards receive a request for modification, they may request information from a health care provider confirming the need for an ‘assistance animal. ‘
  • In service animal cases brought under the ADA, courts look at whether the person is a person with a disability and whether the claimed service animal has been trained to perform specific, disability-related tasks. The FHAA, instead, asks if the policy modification is necessary to allow a person with a disability equal opportunity to use and enjoy their property.



These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.