Assistance Animals and Individuals With Disabilities Under Federal Laws: Matrix and Practice Considerations

(Printer-friendly PDF version | 161 KB)
(Large Print PDF version | 154 KB)

ADA Knowledge Translation Center Legal Brief No. 2.2


Sharan E. Brown

ADA Knowledge Translation Center




One of the primary goals of American civil rights laws is community access for individuals who have historically been denied an equal opportunity to participate with others.  Assistance animals, including service animals, provide numerous supports and services that minimize barriers for some individuals with disabilities, thereby allowing them greater inclusion in community activities.  The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal laws recognize the importance of some assistance animals for individuals with a wide variety of disabilities.

The applicable rules regarding the rights of individuals with disabilities and their assistance animals under various federal laws are not complicated.  The courts and administrative agencies enforcing these laws have developed regulations and issued guidance to apply in various situations.  Nonetheless, the application of the appropriate rules to a particular scenario is often very confusing.  This is due in part to the difference in the definition of an assistance animal among the laws and within the ADA itself.  When both the ADA and other federal or state laws are applicable, determining the rules to apply becomes particularly difficult because the definitions and standards may not be the same.

The following matrix summarizes selective federal law and the standards that apply to assistance animals in various settings.  It should be considered a work in progress as the law continues to evolve in this area.  In some cases state law applicable to assistance animals in public spaces will differ from the federal definitions and obligations of covered entities.  In these situations, the state law must also be considered when it differs from the federal law. For more information on service animals under the ADA and assistance animals under other federal laws, please see and

At the end of 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it revised its Air Carrier Access Act regulation on the transportation of service animals by air. We are working to update the information provided below to align with the changes. While we take the time to update our information, check out a summary of the changes available on DOT’s website. You can also find some additional information in DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection’s article about service animals.

Assistance Animals and Federal Law at a Glance

Covered Entity


Definition of Animals Covered

Regulations and Implementing Agency

Permissible Documentation
and/or Questions

Other Applicable Federal Law

Employers with 15 or more employees

ADA Title I

No definition

Reasonable Accommodation if required to allow the individual to perform essential functions of the job and enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment



2 questions:

1) does animal perform specific task related to ability to perform essential functions; and 2) is the animal a “reasonable” accommodation


Local & State Government Programs and Services

ADA Title II

Service Animal (dogs individually trained to perform task or service) or Miniature Horse on case by case basis

Reasonable Modifications and animal must be

1) in control of handler; 2) housebroken; 3) not a danger (direct threat) to others



2 questions: 

1) is animal a service animal required because of disability; and 2) what work or task has animal been trained to perform.

Section 504


Public Transportation

ADA Title II

Service animal:

[A]ny guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, etc.

Shall permit service animals to accompany individuals with disabilities in vehicles and facilities.

Animal must not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of drivers or other riders, create a seriously disruptive atmosphere, or are otherwise not under the rider’s control.



Same as Local & State Government Programs and Services (Title II)


Public Accommodations

(12 categories of private business)


Same as Local & State Government Programs and Services (Title II) above

Same as Local & State Government Programs and Services (Title II) above



Same as Local & State Government Programs and Services (Title II) above


Private Transportation


Same at Public Transportation (Title II)

Same as Public Transportation (Title II) above



Same as Public Transportation (Title II) above


Recipients of federal funding

Section 504

No definition of animals covered but OCR applies Local & State Government Programs and Services (Title II) standards

Reasonable Modifications to policies, procedures



Applies Local & State Government Programs and Services (Title II) standards as above

Title II


Public K-12 education


No definition of animals covered

Related Services necessary to allow child to receive free appropriate public education (FAPE)



IEP team determines what “related services” are necessary to provide FAPE

Title II

Section 504

Public housing; three exceptions to coverage


Animals that work, provide assistance, or perform tasks for the benefit of person with a disability, or that provide emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of person’s disability.

Reasonable accommodation to rules, policies, practices or services in order to allow person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.


  • creates undue financial or administrative burden;
  • fundamentally alters nature of business;
  • creates substantial damage to housing;
  • or poses a direct threat.



2 questions: 1) does the person have a disability (as defined under Section 504 & ADA); and 2) does the person have a disability related need for the assistance animal.

Title II

Title III

Section 504


All Airlines registered in the US and foreign code share partners


All animals that are individually trained to assist a qualified person with a disability or any animal necessary for the emotional well-being of a passenger

(a few species exceptions).

Must meet the size/weight (fit under the seat) and species requirements; cannot be dangerous or disruptive



Emotional and Psychiatric Support animals only must bring documentation and 48 hr. advanced notice;

Other animals “rely on credible verbal assurances.”

NOTE:  some airlines have implemented  new rules on their flights


Law is often behind social realities and slow to respond to evidence that existing law needs modification.  The increased use of assistance animals in a variety of settings—schools, airlines, restaurants, and transportation network companies (Uber, for example)—is forcing the courts and administrative agencies to deal with gaps in existing law.  The Department of Transportation’s notice of advanced rule making regarding assistance animals under the ACAA in May of 2018 is an example of the recognition that current federal law needs clarification to ensure that individuals with disabilities continue to benefit from the supports and services provided by their assistance animals and freely participate in all settings.[1]

Content was developed by the ADA Knowledge Translation Center and is based on professional consensus of ADA experts and the ADA National Network.

ADA Knowledge Translation Center

The contents of this case law brief were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0086). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this case law brief do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

© Copyright 2019 ADA National Network. All Rights Reserved.
May be reproduced and distributed freely with attribution to ADA National Network (