Back to the blog

What is the difference between service animals and assistance animals?

by Brougher, Desiree on

The topic of service and assistance animals causes a number of headaches for landlords and property managers, not because of the need for animals, but due to the lack of specific guidance on how to handle the situation. Act 118 of 2018, known as the Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act and which went into effect on Dec. 23, alleviates some of those concerns.

A frequently-asked question is “what is an assistance animal, and is it the same as a service animal?” The act categorizes support animals and provides two separate definitions. A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform a task for a person with a disability. The common example is that of a “seeing eye dog,” who accompanies a sightless individual for that person’s safety. An assistance animal is any animal except a service animal that provides disability-related support, including emotional support. These can be cats who provide anxiety relief or a teacup pig that helps alleviate depression.

Another concern is the ease with which one can obtain “official” documentation for a support animal and what seems like a lack of accountability for the people who attempt to mislead landlords and property managers. The act now makes it a criminal offense to misrepresent one’s entitlement to an assistance or a support animal. This misrepresentation can take the form of either faking a disability (and hence the need for an animal), using a special harness or collar to lead another to believe that an animal is a support animal or using false information to obtain documentation. There are now also specific criteria for the documentation which will make it more difficult for people to simply find a form online.

A final concern is the type of animals that may be considered an assistance animal, and what potential harm may come to other tenants as a result. The act answers that question by providing landlords with immunity from liability for injuries caused by an assistance or service animal that is permitted on the property as a reasonable accommodation.


Service animal Assistance animal
Comments (5)
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Wayne Fenstermacher

Would that immunity cover a landlord where the tenant has a “comfort” dog of a breed their insurance company excluded from their coverage?

Scott M Waldman

Thank you for providing this update. There are (at least) three important items for real estate licensees to keep in mind about the new Pennsylvania law.
First, while there are separate definitions for “service” versus “assistance” animals, they are treated the same under the law, so for purposes of consumers and licensees, it doesn’t really matter whether the animal is considered to be one or the other. Therefore, licensees and consumers should not attempt to make a distinction between the two.
Second, there is no specific guidance as to who may provide documentation of the disability-related need for the animal, other than that the person must have “direct knowledge” of the issues and that the documentation must be “reliable.” This could create a situation where a person seeking to have a service or assistance animal in a property submits documentation from someone other than a licensed physician and the landlord or association objects based on the “reliability” of the documentation. In that instance, the licensee should NEVER offer their own judgment on this issue, but should instead refer their customer to seek the advice of an attorney who practices in this area of the law.
Third, the documentation is required to address both the disability and the disability-related need for the animal. However, once a housing provider has this type of knowledge about a person’s disability, they must be careful to not act in a way that could appear to be discriminatory based upon this knowledge. They must also be careful to safeguard this information so that other medical privacy laws are not breached.

Doug Byler

If HUD regulation supersede state law, how much protection does this law actually offer landlords and HOA’s with pet regulations? It seems HUD views “service animals” and “assistance animals” the same way. It is my understanding that regardless if a dog is helping a vision impaired person get around, or whether a pig helps someone get relief from anxiety HUD makes no distinction. Other than making misrepresentation a crime, I do not see much value in a state law that HUD is taking the lead on.

Suzy Weibel

I have to say as a Realtor and the owner/handler of a certified “Therapy Dog” (a title not covered in this article) the abuse of the title and privileges of “support animals” is upsetting. Service animals are highly trained to complete and assist in specific tasks. These dogs work hard, require an atmosphere that allows them to focus on their job (thus the “do not pet” rule) and are truly special animals. A very high percentage of service dog hopefuls “flunk out” of training programs. It is not an attainable status for all dogs. A “Therapy Dog” also undergoes extensive training (we have spent thousands preparing ours for his work) but does not complete specific tasks. His job is to be calm and supportive, to allow for extensive touch and to be calm in the face of all manner of chaos in order to provide comfort to those who may be sad, traumatized, sick, institutionalized, etc. These dogs have been thoroughly vetted and are typically insured by the organization that certifies them. In my humble opinion, the term “emotional support animal” fits all dogs and cats, and many smaller household pets as well. Why else would we as humans keep animals in our home unless they provide comfort, companionship, laughter, etc… If tenants want to earn an exception to the terms set forth by their landlord, I would be in favor of the law requiring therapy dog certification for such support animals. At least then the property owner could know the animal has been vetted to actually provide the support needed and may even rest assured knowing there is an insurance blanket that reduces risk as well. I have clients being railroaded by young tenants who simply want a pet with them… in the “emotional support animal” boom they have found a way to get around the rules, bringing untrained and often uncared for animals into their apartments leaving property owners no recourse against property damage, barking dogs, potential dog bites, etc. I’m glad to see changes being put into effect; I’d love to see even more.

Kim Van Horn

Curious, if your buyer has a service or assistance animal and you are showing the buyer houses, wouldn’t it be necessary for you to disclose to the seller’s agent that the animal would be present for the showing? Can the seller deny the animal’s access to the property? Thinking of the seller who has allergies to animals.