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How Does The IRS Define A Service Dog vs. An Emotional Support Animal?

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

How does the IRS define a service dog and can I claim my emotional support animal as a tax deduction?

The IRS does not offer a definition of a "service dog", but guidance can be gleaned from the Americans With Disability Act (ADA). Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.

  • Hearing Dogs– Alert the deaf to different sounds, alarms, etc.

  • Guide Dogs– Used by those that are visually impaired to help them navigate around obstacles, through a crowd, etc.

  • Mobility Dogs– Provides support and does tasks for those with limited mobility or with balance issues.

  • Psychiatric Service Dogs – Provides support for invisible mental illnesses. These dogs alert or calm their owners in need.

  • Medical Alert Dogs – Alerts their owners before an attack, seizure, or drop in blood sugar.[i]

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Lilly Stefak, aka Per Diem Plus mascot

What does "do work or perform tasks" mean?

The dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.

Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?

No. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

"Prior to January 2021, the law allowed emotional support animals to fly with documentation from a medical doctor verifying the animal was necessary for comforting the passenger. ESAs did not have to be trained. But after rampant abuse of the system that included people taking everything from peacocks to snakes to untrained and aggressive dogs on flights, the DOT revised its regulations to allow airlines to ban ESAs from the skies. Although the ultimate decision was left up to the airlines themselves, all major U.S. and Canadian carriers quickly changed their policies to stop non-ESA pets from flying. You can still fly with a small dog (under 25 pounds), but the pup must be in a carrier and you will need to pay the airline pet fee to fly."

Becca Blond, The Points Guy (9/12/23)

If someone's dog calms them when having an anxiety attack, does this qualify it as a service animal?

It depends. The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.

Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?

No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.

Can service animals be any breed of dog?

Yes. The ADA does not restrict the type of dog breeds that can be service animals.

Warning: "Service Animal" registration services

I found dozens of websites pitching “Service Animal” registration services while researching this article. All had variations on what disabilities qualified for the tax-deductible classification. My purpose is to analyze the tax implications and not to evaluate the merits of the service animal designation. Therefore, the below discussion (where applicable) uses definitions under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Whether Fido is a Service Animal, Emotional Support Animal or Guard Dog in accordance with IRS regulations is critical in determining the deductibility of pet-related expenses.

Service Dog:

Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.

  • The expenses associated with a Service Dog are likely deductible as a medical expense.

Emotional Support Dog:

Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals are not considered service animals under the ADA. The types of emotional conditions that may require the assistance of an ESD are:

  • PTSD, anxiety and depression

  • The expenses associated with an Emotional Support Dog are likely not deductible as a medical expense.

Guard Dog:

There is scant guidance on the deductibility of guard dogs, however, it is clear they do not meet the statutory requirement to qualify under Internal Revenue Code 213.

  • The expenses associated with a Guard Dog may be deductible to a business but not as a medical expense.

  • An individual taxpayer cannot claim a Guard Dog as a deductible medical expense.


Pub 502 - Guard Dogs & Service Animals
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Can I use my dog as a tax deduction? Maybe. Every pet owner claims their animal is a member of the family and an essential companion for thousands of long-haul truckers. The IRS disagrees. It understandable that taxpayers may want to recoup some of their pet expenses with a tax deduction, but with the overall value of the deduction is limited due to the 7.5% of AGI offsetting most expenses. Furthermore, extensive rules have been promulgated to insure only qualifying animal expenses can be deducted and taxpayers risk the wrath of the IRS if they get too creative interpreting those regulations.

Have a tax question? Request a free consultation HERE with Mark W. Sullivan, EA


Copyright 2023 Mark Sullivan Consulting, PLLC. Per Diem Plus proprietary software is the trademark of Per Diem Plus, LLC.®

Disclaimer: This article is for information purposes only and cannot be cited as precedent or relied upon in a tax dispute before the IRS.


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