There are two main categories of animals that provide assistance to people with disabilities: emotional support animals and service animals. While both can offer invaluable support to their owners, there are significant differences between the two. 

In today’s blog post, we'll take a look at the distinctions between emotional support animals and service animals, focusing on their roles and the legal protections they receive.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefits to its owner, helping to alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ESAs can be any type of animal, but most commonly, they are dogs or cats.

Unlike service animals, ESAs do not require specific training to perform tasks related to their owner's disability.

To qualify for an emotional support animal, an individual must have a diagnosed mental health condition and a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating that the animal provides emotional support to alleviate symptoms of a specific condition. This letter is often referred to as an "ESA letter."

While ESAs are not granted the same level of access as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they receive some legal protections. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), individuals with ESAs are entitled to reasonable accommodations in housing, even if the property has a "no pets" policy. Additionally, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) allows ESAs to accompany their owners in an aircraft cabin, provided they have the necessary documentation.

Service Animals

Service animals are individually trained to perform specific tasks directly related to their owner's disability. In most cases, service animals are dogs, though miniature horses can also be considered service animals in some situations. The ADA defines service animals as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities."

Service dogs might perform tasks such as guiding blind individuals, alerting deaf individuals to sounds, pulling a wheelchair, or providing assistance during a seizure. They can also be trained to help individuals with mental health conditions by reminding them to take medication or providing deep pressure therapy during anxiety attacks.

Under the ADA, service animals can access public spaces, including restaurants, stores, and transportation services. Business owners and staff can only ask two questions regarding service animals: 

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? 


  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform? 

They cannot ask about the individual's specific disability or request documentation for the service animal.

It's important to note that service animals are working animals, not pets. They should be well-behaved and under the control of their handler at all times. If a service animal is not under control or directly threatens the health and safety of others, a business may ask the handler to remove the animal from the premises.

The Role of Your Local Veterinarian

Whether you have an emotional support animal or a service dog, it's essential to maintain their health and well-being. Regular check-ups with your local veterinarian can help ensure that your animal companion remains in top condition to provide the support you need. Your veterinarian can also offer guidance on proper nutrition, exercise, and training for your emotional support animal or service dog.

While emotional support animals and service animals both provide invaluable assistance to their owners, they serve different purposes and receive different legal protections. ESAs offer therapeutic benefits to those with mental health conditions, while service animals are individually trained to perform specific tasks related to their owner's disability. By understanding the differences between the two, we can better appreciate their crucial roles in the lives of those who rely on them.

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