In the therapy world, the impact of animals on our mental health has become a more common conversation. More often people ask, “What is the differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal (ESA)?”. There can be confusion about the unique supportive roles that animals may take in our lives. Below are a few key distinctions between service animals and ESAs to help us better understand two of those roles:

Service Animals

  • A service animal is defined by the ADA as, “Dogs that are individually trained to do work or tasks for people with disabilities.” On occasion, miniature horses are also permitted to be service animals, though they are less common than dogs. No other animals are legally considered to be service animals.
  • Service animals may complete many different tasks such as guiding, alerting to medical concerns or sounds. They may remind someone to take medication, retrieve objects, and support someone physically. There are many unique tasks that animals are specifically trained for to directly support someone with a disability.
  • Service animals are not considered pets, while they may live with their handler, they function as medical equipment. For this reason, service animals must be allowed in all areas that the general public is allowed to enter.
  • Service animals are highly trained and must always be under the control of their handler.
  • Service animals can support individuals with mental health conditions. However, an animal who provides comfort or emotional support for their owner does not qualify as a service animal. Unless this animal is also trained to complete specific tasks to support someone with a mental health condition.
  • Service animals are subjected to laws about animal licenses and vaccinations. However, they are not required to be registered in any way. It is not legal to require the registration of an animal as a service animal. Beware of websites that claim they complete registration paperwork for service animals!

Emotional Support Animals

  • An emotional support animal is an animal that provides a therapeutic benefit to someone living with a mental health condition.
  • Emotional support animals are not considered service animals.
  • Many domesticated animals can be considered emotional support animals, not just dogs.
  • Emotional support animals do not need to be task-trained to complete specific tasks.
  • Emotional support animals are protected for housing accommodations under the Fair Housing Act. This means that they are allowed to live in housing with their owners. However, they are not allowed to accompany their owners to public places where animals are generally not allowed (stores, restaurants, etc.).
  • Some licensed mental health professionals may be able to write a letter documenting an animal as an ESA for their clients.

Therapeutically, there are a multitude of ways that animals can support our well-being. From service animals to ESAs to regular pets, it is important to understand the differences between these roles and understand what they may mean for each individual who is looking for support from an animal for their mental health.

If you are looking for emotional support beyond just having a service animal, reach out to one of our many therapists at Cityscape Counseling.

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