What is a Therapy Animal?

An Essential Property Management Term

A therapy animal is a creature who, along with its owner, is registered by an animal-assisted intervention organization to visit hospitals, long-term care facilities, treatment centers, schools, and other settings to benefit people in need, according to American Humane.

Therapy animals can be any animal species and participate in a range of animal-assisted interventions, the American Veterinary Medical Association notes. These animals typically undergo training, behavioral, and veterinary evaluation before receiving certification. There’s no federal requirement regarding therapy animal identification, but animals will usually wear a bandana, harness, or name tag. It’s important to highlight that therapy animals aren’t recognized or protected under federal law like emotional support animals (ESAs).

People commonly confuse emotional support animals, service animals, and therapy animals, so we’ll define the difference below.

Therapy Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal

Emotional support animals are companions to their owners who struggle with emotional and mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. As the American Human Society states, “unlike service and therapy dogs, emotional support animals are not expected to perform specific tasks related to their owner’s condition, nor must they adhere to any behavior standards or training. Their presence alone is what is thought to provide their owner with solace and therapeutic benefit.”

Another key difference between these types of animals is their protection under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA requires most housing units accommodate ESAs with appropriate documentation, which includes an ESA housing letter. An ESA housing letter is a signed statement from the tenant’s mental health practitioner or another reliable party that proves the animal companion is essential to their well-being and recovery.

The ESA letter must include:

  • The signature of a medical professional, social worker, peer support group, or another reliable party
  • A statement indicating how long the tenant has been a patient/group member
  • An explanation of why the ESA is necessary

Once this letter is produced, the tenant and their emotional support animal are granted specific protections, including:

  • Landlords cannot require the emotional support animal to undergo any specific training.
  • Landlords cannot refuse housing to the tenant even if their property insurance doesn’t cover emotional support animals.
  • Landlords cannot ask tenants to pay any extra rent or deposits for having the emotional support animal, though it should be noted that they can require payment for any damage done by the animal.

Therapy Animal vs. Service Animal

Service animals, “also known as assistance animals, receive training to perform quantifiable tasks that directly ease the challenges associated with their owner’s physical, psychiatric, sensory, and/or developmental disability,” American Humane says. The most common types of service dogs include:

  • Guide
  • Hearing
  • Medical Alert
  • Mobility
  • Autism

These animals are protected under the FHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which allows service animals to go to most public places, including theaters, restaurants, and hotels, with their owners. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 made it possible for service animals to travel with their owners on airplanes.

Just as with ESAs, landlords must make an exception or reasonable accommodation for people with service animals. While there is no nationally recognized service dog training, certification, or identification standards, service animals should be individually trained in essential tasks at a minimum to assist with their owner’s disability. They should also be well-behaved and under control in the community, American Humane says.

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