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The Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal VS. Service Animal

One important thing service dogs and emotional support animals have in common is their ability to change the lives of their owners, enabling their human companions to successfully navigate everyday life. However, there are far more differences when it comes to discussing the idea of an emotional support animal vs. a service animal.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding the difference between an emotional support dog and service dog, including legal regulations, how to qualify, and the role each one fulfills.

What is the purpose of an emotional support animal?

As you may have guessed from the name, an emotional support animal, or ESA, provides its owner with emotional support. This support may come in the form of affection, relief of stress or anxiety, companionship, and friendship. ESA’s help the owners feel comforted and reassured through the animal’s presence. An emotional support animal can be a dog, cat, rabbit, hamster, snake, or nearly any other type of animal, depending on the owner’s specific needs and relationship with the animal.

Unlike a typical pet, an emotional support animal is specifically suited to improving the day-to-day functionality and happiness of an owner with particular mental and/or emotional needs. Many ESA owners find that caring for an animal and making responsibility and routine a part of their daily lives also helps them reduce difficult symptoms associated with a diagnosed mental, emotional, or psychological condition.

Why would you need an emotional support animal?

If you have emotional, mental, or psychological challenges that impair your ability to successfully manage everyday life, you may be able to benefit from an emotional support animal. Because ESAs can help their owners in a variety of ways, including reduction of stress and anxiety, you may discover that your unique needs can be supported by an emotional support animal well-suited to you.

What qualifies you for an emotional support animal?

One of the most common obstacles that holds people back from getting an ESA is the question, “Do I qualify for an emotional support animal?” You may be surprised to learn that it’s easier than you think to receive approval for an emotional support animal, including obtaining the necessary documents to allow you to travel and live with your ESA.

Qualifying for an emotional support animal requires a person to have a diagnosed emotional, mental, or psychological condition, the symptoms of which can be effectively reduced by an ESA. There is a wide range of conditions that can receive doctors’ recommendations for an emotional support animal, with some of the most well-known including the following:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Stress
  • Panic disorders
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Mood disorders
  • Phobias

Ultimately, only a licensed professional can provide you with an official “prescription” for an emotional support animal. Talking to a doctor about your symptoms, whether you’ve been diagnosed or not, is the first step in receiving the help that an emotional support animal can provide.


Are emotional support dogs considered service dogs?

One of the most common sources of confusion surrounding ESAs is the topic of ESA vs. therapy dog vs. service dog. While it is true that all three types provide their human companions with the assistance and the support they need to achieve a higher quality of life, each one serves its own unique purpose.

Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal gives affection, companionship, and comfort to an owner suffering from a diagnosed mental, emotional, or psychological condition. An ESA does not perform specific tasks, but instead simply serves as a support system in both everyday life and challenging situations. Through their companionship, they can help their owners live happier, healthier lives and overcome the challenges of their specific condition.

Service Animal

A service animal may be paired with a person with visual impairment, seizure disorder, hearing loss, mobility challenges, diabetes, and other conditions. Service dogs participate in strict training that enables them to help their owners function on a daily basis, including completing tasks and alerting them to potential oncoming emotional or physical episodes. In order to be considered a service animal, training and certification must be achieved.

Therapy Dog

A therapy dog gives comfort and joy, much like an emotional support animal. However, therapy dogs generally work with large groups of people rather than a specific owner, visiting facilities such as hospitals, schools, and elderly care facilities under the care of a handler.

What training is required for a service animal vs. emotional support animal?

Another important difference between service animals and emotional support animals is the type of training required. A service animal advances through a series of intense training tasks and courses, receiving certification upon their successful completion. This training ensures that they are able to serve the medical needs of their owner, as well as handle unique tasks (such as opening doors or turning on lights) on a consistent basis.

In contrast, an emotional support animal does not have to undergo specific training or receive an official certification that verifies their abilities. While an ESA owner is typically asked to possess a doctor-provided ESA letter as documentation, the animal itself does not need any particular paperwork to be considered an ESA. It’s important that an emotional support animal be able to behave appropriately in both private and public environments so that they can sufficiently comfort their owner and avoid problematic behavioral issues. However, standard training (whether at home or via a professional) is typically enough to build these foundational skills and positive habits.

Are emotional support dogs covered by the ADA?

The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, is a law that prevents any form of discrimination against disabled persons in various aspects of public life, including education, transportation, employment, and housing. The ADA does make provisions for service animals, granting them access to public places. However, because emotional support animals are categorized separately from service animals, they are not granted the same level of coverage.

It’s important to understand that emotional support animals do not necessarily have the same rights as service animals. For example, your ESA can be refused access to a public space. Despite this, you do have certain legal protections when it comes to being an emotional support animal owner.

The Fair Housing Act details the concept of reasonable accommodation in housing, requiring property owners and landlords to make a fair attempt to allow ESAs, regardless of “no pet” policies. The Fair Housing Act can also protect you from pet rent and other additional housing charges because the law makes a clear distinction from regular “pets” and emotional support animals. Another legal protection for ESA owners is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which outlines the expectations and rights provided to disabled persons traveling by airplane. The ACAA allows emotional support animals to travel in the main cabin of an airplane, instead of being confined to the cargo hold where they are unable to provide the comfort their owner may need.

Ultimately, while emotional support animals are not provided the same protections as service animals under the ADA, there are still laws that safeguard your ESA rights.

Are emotional support dogs allowed everywhere?

No. Unlike service animals, which are granted legal access to public spaces, emotional support dogs do not necessarily have the same rights. A business owner or employee can legally ask you to remove your ESA from the building, but many are willing to make accommodations if possible. If you are planning to bring your emotional support dog into a specific business, it may be a good idea to call ahead and inform the management of the situation.

Emotional support dogs do have rights when it comes to housing and air travel, as long as you are in possession of a proper ESA letter. In these cases, your ESA documentation can ensure that you can live and travel with your emotional support animal without facing the discrimination often brought about by misinformation.

Can my pet become an emotional support animal?

While service dogs are required to complete intensive training facilitated by an experienced handler, any pet can be an emotional support animal. For many ESA owners, their chosen ESA is a pet they already owned before receiving their ESA letter. Perhaps you already have a dog, cat, or other pet that helps you cope with the emotional or mental challenges of your condition. If so, your existing pet may be an ideal choice for your emotional support pet.

How do I choose an emotional support animal?

If you don’t yet own a pet that may be a good candidate for an ESA, you can choose to adopt one. Again, there are no specific requirements for the type of animal that can be an ESA, so you are free to choose one that suits your personality, lifestyle, and personal preference. The emotional connection is the key element in your relationship with your ESA, and it is something you can establish after building a relationship with your new pet.

Keep in mind that certain animals, such as spiders and reptiles, can be refused access to airplane cabins – so if you’re hoping to travel with your ESA, take this into consideration. Additionally, avoid animals with a history of aggression or behavioral problems, and this can lead to increased stress and their inability to successfully function as an ESA.

Learn More about How to Get an Emotional Support Animal from Support Pets

If you’re wondering whether an emotional support animal may be able to improve your quality of life, Support Pets is here to help. Using our stress-free, online system, you can get the ESA approval documents you need to move forward in the process. In addition to online ESA approval, we also provide a variety of helpful resources about emotional support pets, helping you learn more about important topics such as how to talk to your doctor about getting an ESA, ESA laws, and how to know if you qualify for an ESA.

When you need an ESA letter from a licensed physician and fast, easy approval, you can trust Support Pets. Take our short quiz to find out if you qualify in just seconds and take your first steps towards benefitting from the specialized care and compassion only an emotional support animal can provide.