Comfort animals, also known as emotional support animals, are pets that have been prescribed for a person with mental or psychological disabilities by her licensed therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional. The animal is prescribed because it provides some therapeutic benefit to the owner, alleviating symptoms of a mental or psychiatric disability.

What Is the Difference Between a Service Animal and a Comfort Animal?

Service animals are typically dogs trained to perform major life tasks in order to assist people with physical disabilities. In some cases, small horses are eligible to be service animals. Service animals are also known as assistance animals, assist animals, support animals, or help animals. In order to legally qualify to have a service animal, a person must have a disability that substantially limits her ability to perform at least one major life task without assistance. Because these animals assist people with physical limitations, the animals are extensively trained.

Comfort animals, on the other hand, do not receive any task training. Instead, their mere presence helps mitigate their owner’s mental or psychiatric disability.

What Animals Qualify as Comfort Animals?

All domesticated animals can qualify as a comfort animal, including dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, mice, birds, snakes, ferrets, and mini pigs, to name a few. The animal can be any age. There are no laws excluding any particular animal from qualifying as a comfort animal. However, in order to qualify, a patient’s mental health professional must state in a letter that the patient is determined to be emotionally or psychologically disabled and that the presence of the animal is necessary for the disabled person’s mental health.

What Kind of Protections Exist for People with Comfort Animals?

Pursuant to the Air Carrier Access Act, comfort animals may fly with its disabled owner in the cabin of an aircraft, and the owner cannot be charged an additional pet fee. The owner must have a photo ID identifying the pet as a comfort animal, a certification document from a registry company, and a letter from the licensed professional who prescribed the pet as a comfort animal.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 requires landlords to reasonably accommodate tenants with disabilities. So long as the requested accommodation does not constitute an undue financial or administrative burden for the landlord, or fundamentally alter the nature of the housing, the landlord must provide the accommodation. Failure to do so constitutes discrimination.

Pursuant to the Fair Housing Act, people with comfort animals qualify for no-pet housing without paying an additional pet fee. Even if the rental unit has a policy that allows dogs weighing no more than 25 pounds and the comfort animal weighs 50 pounds, the landlord must make a change in the rules to accommodate the tenant.

What Conflicts Can Arise With Comfort Animals?

Let’s say that you’re on a flight, you suffer from pet allergies and you share a cabin with a dog that has proper paperwork as a comfort animal for a passenger. What are your rights? While you would want to notify the flight attendant of your allergies, the airline will likely just move you to another seat further away from the animal. Moving the passenger with the comfort animal may constitute discrimination, but the airline must reasonably accommodate both passengers.

Existing tenants with pet allergies who have a valid residential lease also have rights. If a tenant has proper paperwork to support her pet allergy and a person applies for a room within the same unit but has a comfort animal, the landlord can legally elect not to rent the room to the person with the comfort animal. This is because the landlord cannot discriminate against the tenant with allergies to accommodate the person with the comfort animal. Such conduct would go beyond providing a “reasonable accommodation,” as it would require the landlord to break the lease with the existing tenant in order to accommodate a tenant with a comfort animal.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are involved in a conflict over a comfort animal, a local lawyer specializing in landlord/tenant law may be helpful. If you are having trouble with a comfort animal in the workplace, try contacting an employment lawyer.