Emotional Support Animals versus Psychiatric Service Dogs: What You Need to Know

We all know what pets are. They’re part of the family and bring us unconditional love and joy every day! Technically, pets are “animals that are kept for company or entertainment rather than being working animals, laboratory animals or livestock.” That dry definition doesn’t come close to describing the wealth of benefits we get from having pets in our lives! 

But it’s important to know exactly what defines a pet and separates it from both Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD), as well as what separates those two categories from each other.

What is an Official ESA®?

Emotional support animals are a gift to people suffering from a range of disorders. They provide support and can calm people in the middle of a panic attack, suffering from depression or managing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ESAs don’t require special training or perform special tasks. For someone to have an ESA, a doctor must prescribe that to them based on a diagnosed mental or emotional condition that requires additional emotional support. 

Although ESAs are protected from pet restrictions and fees by the Federal Housing Act, private businesses can choose whether or not to allow ESAs on the premises. Most businesses accept well-behaved Emotional Support Animals, including public transportation, ride shares, shops and restaurants. More employers than ever are open to the presence of well-behaved ESAs in the office as well, if conditions are safe for both employees and the ESA. 

Although the majority of ESAs are dogs, with cats second, they can be anything: rabbits, hedgehogs, even birds, and more!

What is a Psychiatric Service Dog?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) carefully defines service animals. Service animals must be trained to perform specific tasks and perform services to their owners. Seeing-eye dogs for the visually impaired are probably the type of service dog that most people are familiar with.  But service animals can perform a variety of tasks for people with a range of conditions, including deafness, mobility issues, multiple sclerosis, cancer and epilepsy. That includes mental and emotional illnesses as well, which is where Psychiatric Support Dogs (PSDs) come in. 

Many of the same conditions that emotional support animals can help their owners with can be helped by psychiatric service dogs as well. Those include depression, anxiety, PTSD, learning disabilities, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), phobias, anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, autism and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Why do we say Psychiatric Service DOG? The ADA is strict that service animals, unlike ESAs, must be dogs, and in very specific circumstances, horses. So to simplify, we talk about Psychiatric Service Dogs rather than Psychiatric Service Animals. 

Just like any other service dog, PSDs must perform specific tasks for their owners and be trained to do so. Those tasks may include: 

  • Retrieving medications
  • Reacting and alerting the owner to specific sounds like fire alarms 
  • Grounding and reorienting people having an anxiety or panic attack 
  • Assisting with balance for people who are unsteady walking due to medications or other issues
  • Locating people or places in a crowd 
  • Interrupting and redirecting people exhibiting OCD or self-destructive behaviors
  • Navigating a person through a stressful environment such as a crowd and buffering them from people in that crowd 
  • Searching the room for people with PTSD
  • Maintaining healthy routines through task reminders 
  • Performing tactile stimulation and pressure therapy when their owner is in distress 

It’s important for owners of PSDs to understand that no one is allowed to ask your PSD to demonstrate the tasks that it is trained to perform. They may ask IF you have a condition that requires the assistance of a PSD, but not what that condition is nor how severe it is. That’s part of your right to privacy under the ADA. 

Like all service animals, PSDs have the same rights to be in any place that serves the public. While businesses may elect not to all ESAs inside, they must allow PSDs in. That includes all housing and lodging, including apartments and hotels; public transit and airplanes; and all public spaces including offices, university campuses, restaurants, bars, stores, supermarkets and more.

What’s the difference between a PSD and an ESA?

The difference in the two types of animals is primarily about the tasks they are trained to perform and the type of animal. No bird or rabbit, no matter how supportive they are to a person in need, can be a PSD, but they can be ESAs. At the same time, if a dog is not trained to perform a specific task, it cannot be a PSD, but it can still qualify as an ESA. The difference rests in the type of animal and its training.

How Do I Know If I Need an ESA or a PSD?

It’s important to understand that the difference between an ESA and a PSD does not depend on the severity of a mental or emotional condition. The best way to find out if you need a PSD is to work with a licensed doctor who will ask you to describe your symptoms and assess your situation to determine the need for a PSD or an ESA. If a doctor concludes that you can benefit from a psychiatric support dog, that’s the way to go.

Can My Pet Become an ESA or a PSD?

Absolutely! Any dog or cat can be an Official ESA®, regardless of training. If a doctor confirms that your pet provides you with necessary emotional support, then your pet  qualifies as an ESA. It’s a little trickier to turn a pet into a PSD, but it’s still possible. Remember, a PSD can only be a dog, so you can’t turn your cat into a PSD. However, if your doctor determines that you need a PSD and you already have a dog, your dog can become a PSD with some training.

How Can My Pet Become an ESA?

A medical professional licensed in your state must prescribe that you need an Emotional Support Animal to help you get through a mental or emotional illness. A simple questionnaire is the start to getting your pet certified as an Official ESA®!  We work with licensed physicians in every state to provide access to ESAs to people in need of that support. We understand that ESAs perform a valuable service – not the same as PSDs but just as important and necessary. To get your pet certified as an Official ESA®, contact us today so we can help you

Bring on the Green: Houseplants That Are Safe for Pets

dog with safe houseplants

Houseplants are good for us! They help keep our indoor air clean and bringing nature inside can change the entire dynamic and feel of a home. Many people feel more connected to the Earth when they are able to put their hands in soil and work with living plants, especially those who live in high-rises or town homes without yards. But as much as we enjoy them, some houseplants and cut flowers may not be so great for our furry roommates.

Did you know that some common houseplants can make your pet sick? Pets, especially cats, are often drawn to the leaves and eat parts of houseplants. And often, we keep those beautifully tempting houseplants at their level, especially larger ones with substantial pots. (Many a holiday has been disrupted by taking sick kitties to the vet after they’ve gotten into a lovely Christmas poinsettia!) It’s important to protect your pets from the detrimental effects of poisonous houseplants.

Plants to Avoid

Besides poinsettias, some of the most common toxic houseplants include many varieties of lilies, including Easter lilies and Lily of the Valley, daffodils, tulips, azaleas, aloe vera, some kinds of ivy, elephant ears, some ferns, cyclamen, desert roses, asparagus ferns and jade plants. Eucalyptus is so irritating to dogs that even the smell of it in your home can trigger a bad mood or lethargy in your pooch!

The symptoms of toxic poisoning can be painful and distressing for both pet and owner. Different toxins can affect different parts of your pet’s body and the intensity of their reaction can be affected by things like their size and weight, as well as how much of the plant they ingested. Common signs of poisoning are:

Symptoms of Toxic Poisoning in Pets

Plants to Embrace

So how can your pets and plants co-exist safely and happily? Avoid the risk of a sick cat or dog by making sure that your houseplants are non-toxic. Beautiful options abound that will be safe for your furry friends and bring the joy of living plants to your home. Besides the ones listed here, you can always ask your local nursery about a plant before you buy it or check with your vets office as you’re planning to shop.

    • Green Plants: Many types of common, easy-to-care-for houseplants are safe for your cats and dogs.
    • Non-flowering Colorful Plants: Although these don’t flower, they have colorful, festive leaves that brighten any space!
    • Flowering Plants: Although there are fewer flowering plants that are safe for your pets, but the ones that make the grade are gorgeous!
    • Edible Plants: If they’re safe for humans, they’re more likely to be safe for your pets.
Houseplants Safe For Pets

It’s important to know that even plants that aren’t poisonous or toxic can cause digestive upset if your dog or cat eats them, or enough of them. Try to keep plants where your pets can’t be tempted by them, such as in hanging planters, on shelves out of their reach or in spaces they don’t visit frequently. 

With a little research and planning, it’s easy to keep your home beautiful and your pets safe with lovely and safe plants that you can enjoy no matter the season. 

NOTE: If you suspect that your pet has ingested a toxic plant or any other kind of poison and you can’t get to the vet right away, contact the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661 or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 immediately, anytime of the day or night, if your pet displays symptoms or if you suspect exposure to or ingestion of a toxin. Both organizations charge a small fee for their assistance.