The benefits of emotional support or service animals have been well documented in many social work careers and counseling literature, and as a result, social work practitioners are likely to see an increase in social work with animals.

Clients making use of such benefits opt to live with an animal that can provide support for a variety of conditions. A common difficulty of clients living with emotional support animals are confronted with is finding affordable or convenient housing that allows pets and a lack of clarity regarding the presence of support animals in public places. This is where social work with animals can help.

Fortunately, the Department of Housing and Urban Development makes provisions for individuals to live with social work animals and assistance animals (including emotional support animals), even in housing complexes or units that do not otherwise allow pets.

Conflicting Policies

However, the American Disabilities Act has a conflicting policy regarding service animals and their allowance in housing units and public places. These policies and a number of related laws must be well understood in order to best assist clients to know their rights and responsibilities related to emotional support animals.

American Disabilities Act (ADA) Policy

The American Disabilities Act is a federal law applicable to all states and governs the permissibility of service animals in a number of different settings, including public places. The ADAs definition of “service animal” is quite restrictive and in many cases, is not the law in place offering the most protection.

ADA policy on “Service Animals2”:

  • Defines a service animal as: “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 disability2.”
  • Does not consider emotional support animals or comfort animals to be service animals
  • Includes a definition for psychiatric dogs, distinguished from emotional support animals by the performance of vital tasks such as safety checks, “blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger3,” among others.
  • Governs the use of service animals in public places and only permits presence of those who fit their definition

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Policy

HUD is a federal agency governing fair and affordable housing, such as Section 8 vouchers and other federally-assisted housing programs. HUD’s policy on emotional support animals is broader than the ADA’s and is derived from the Fair Housing Act (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). HUD’s policy governs any housing program or activity receiving financial assistance from HUD.

HUD’s policy on “assistance animals”:

  • Does not require assistance animals to be individually trained or certified.
  • Defines assistance animal as: “ an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability4.”
  • Allows for emotional support animals of species other than dogs.
  • Requires that anyone seeking reasonable accommodation to allow their assistance animal to live with them:
  • Have a disability – defined as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities4.”
  • Has a disability-related need for the animal – “In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?4
  • If the individual can affirmatively answer questions 1 and 2 above, housing providers must modify or provide an exception to any “no pets” rules or policies, permitting the individual to “live with and use an assistance animal(s) in all areas of the premises where persons are normally allowed to go unless doing so would impose an undue financial and administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s services.4
  • Does not allow housing providers to deny requests for assistance animals due to uncertainty about the person’s disability status or disability-related need, but does allow housing providers to require the submission of “reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for an assistance animal.4

Related Policies for Social Work with Animals:

In addition to these two main policies governing emotional support animals, social workers should be aware of a few additional policies related to social work with animals.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act3

This policy governs commercial airlines and stipulates that they must allow emotional support animals to accompany passengers with disabilities on their flights. For service animals (meeting the ADA definition), airlines cannot require documentation, but for emotional support animals, airlines can request to see documentation of the individual’s disability and a need for the animal.

School Policies for On-campus Housing5

Universities receiving federally funding are subject to compliance with the Fair Housing Act, meaning they must comply with the HUD policy for reasonable accommodation for students with emotional support animals in on-campus housing

State Policies for Social Work with Animals

Many states have laws that offer different definitions of service animals, assistance animals, and emotional support animals. It is recommended to investigate state policy in order to assist clients in following “the law that offers the most protection for service animals.3

Providing Documentation for Social Work with Animals

Social workers may be asked to provide documentation for housing and airline purposes to clients with emotional support animals and practicing social work with animals. In this instance, it is customary for the social workers to write a letter under their own or agency letterhead. Documentation should state:

  • The client’s name and affirm that the client is under the social worker’s care
  • That the client has a psychiatric or emotional disability
  • That the social worker recommended or can attest to the benefit of the client’s emotional support animal in assistance with her/his disability

Documentation is not required to state/name the disability with which the client is diagnosed, so as to protect clients’ personal health information. It best not to “label, define, or describe the particular disability of the client6” within the letter, but state in more generalized terms that the client does have an emotional/psychiatric disability for which the emotional support animal is needed to alleviate symptoms. Social workers should provide this letter directly to the client seeking it, so that she/he can choose with whom to share this documentation.


Reference List:

  1. An emotional support animal can help with anxiety [Internet]. Newport Beach (CA):; [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
  2. Brennan, J, Nguyen, E. Service animals and emotional support animals: where are they allowed and under what conditions? [Internet]. Houston (TX): Southwest ADA Center; 2014 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
  3. Duffly, Z. Psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals: access to public places and other settings [Internet]. Berkeley (CA): Nolo; 2016 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
  4. Trasviña, J. Service animals and assistance animals for people with disabilities in housing and HUD-funded programs [Internet]. Washington (DC): U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; 2013 Apr 25 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
  5. Grieve, KA. Reasonable accommodations? The debate over service and emotional support animals on college campuses [Internet]. Washington (DC): NASPA Foundation; 2014 Jan 8 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
  6. Chandler, C. Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals [Internet]. Alexandria (VA): American Counseling Association; 2015 Apr 20 [cited 2016 May 17]. Available from
Policy Brief: Emotional Support Animals
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Policy Brief: Emotional Support Animals
Social work practitioners are likely to see an increase in social work with animals. Learn everything you need to know about the policies.
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