Animals play a vital role in the daily lives of many Americans.

People with disabilities depend on their service animals to help them navigate tasks and to make life easier. Some people, with or without a physical or mental disability, can also lean on emotional support animals (ESA), or 'comfort animals', for companionship and ease.

It's important to know the distinction between the two and how the laws apply.

Federal Law Protection

Only one of the two of these classifications for our beloved animals is recognized and protected under federal law by the American Disabilities Act (ADA).

A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, according to ADA requirements. The law also extends to trained miniature horses.

Any other wild or domestic animal, whether trained or untrained, is not considered a service animal under federal law.

Work or tasks performed by service animals include assisting the blind or deaf, alerting and protecting a person that suffers from seizures, as well as calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Service animals are generally allowed to go everywhere the owner would normally go as long as they're not compromising an environment, such as in the operating room in a hospital, according to federal law.

There are a number of places that don't have to comply with ADA laws, specifically religious institutions and organizations, as well as public or fitness swimming pools where a service animal is limited to stay on the deck.

But federal law also states service dogs are not allowed in areas of zoos that may provoke the animals on the premises, such as an area with no fence or barrier.

The only reason a public business is allowed to remove a service animal is if the dog's behavior gets out of control or aggressive. They can also ask an owner to take a service animal out if the dog disrupts the 'goods' of a business, such as barking during a movie.

According to the ADA, a service animal doesn't need to show any proof of training or wear identifying tags or vests. Businesses are only allowed to ask whether the animal is a service animal and what tasks they're trained to perform. Any other questions are illegal.

Service dogs can also be any breed, size or weight.

The ADA clearly states, a dog whose only purpose is to provide emotional or comfort support doesn't qualify as a service animal.

An ESA is not the same as a service animal trained to provide a psychiatric service to an individual.

But, the ADA definition doesn't restrict an ESA under the Fair Housing Act or the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This means, ESA are allowed to go on planes with their owners and can't be discriminated against for housing.

People with ESA may have to provide proof of the animal's therapeutic purposes when taking flight or in looking for housing.

California Law

California law defines service animals under the same standards as the ADA and provides similar protection.

But unlike federal rules, California State Law (CSL) provides identification tags for service dogs under the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Many counties and cities in California also ask that service animals be certified or licensed.

But, a person can choose not to license their service animal since the ADA overrides state and local law. They may choose to do so to avoid being asked about the service dog at public businesses.

California law explicitly states it doesn't protect ESA but they are waived pet fees under the Fair Housing Act and are also allowed to fly on planes under the ACAA. Airlines aren't required to allow 'unusual animals' such as reptiles, rodents or ferrets as ESA.

Sacramento allows animals normally considered livestock, such as pigs, to be kept as domestic pets in a home if they're ESA or therapeutic.

The Law Is The Law

Falsely claiming an animal is a service animal is a serious offense.

Under California law, false claims can result in a misdemeanor with six months in jail, a $1000 fine or both. If a business is found to be discriminating against a person with a disability, they may face a lawsuit or a $2500 fine.

The ADA warns of websites that sell service animal certification or registration documents. These documents aren't recognized by ADA and the Department of Justice.