This Is How Service Animal, Emotional Support Animals, & Therapy Animals Are Different

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
Wang He/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Dogs, cats, and other pets can all have an incredibly beneficial impact on the health of their human companions, and often times, they feel like a four-legged family member. Though it’s totally understandable to want to spend time with your fur baby in all contexts, it's becoming increasingly common to see pet owners seek out "emotional support animal" designations for their dogs in order to receive special protections under the law — a behavior that, as Ali Wunderman writing for Tonic notes, stigmatizes people who truly need trained service or emotional support animals. People often use the terms “service animal,” “emotional support animal,” and “therapy animal” interchangeably, but using these terms so casually, without knowing what they mean, can make it difficult to understand what kind of animal does what kind of task. Here’s what you need to know about each of these designations.

According to the official website for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

In addition to dogs, miniature horses are also recognized as ADA service animals. Dogs and miniature horses receive special protections under the ADA, so they can accompany their owners in public places that animals are typically prohibited — including restaurants, airplanes, stores, and hotels. Moreover, since service animals are considered medically necessary, disabled people who own these hardworking, furry friends cannot be denied housing, even if your landlord has a no-pets rule.

Service animals are typically assessed to make sure they have the right temperament, and then are vigorously coached by a professional handler to learn tasks. From being trained to alert someone with diabetes when they are about to experience a hypoglycemic or hyperglycemic episode, to serving as a guide dog for the visually impaired, service animals can perform a multitude a tasks that make life easier for chronically ill people.

What’s more, service dogs are not just utilized for people with physical disabilities, but can also be helpful for people with mental health disorders: As The Atlantic reported in 2013, “Some sexual assault survivors and service dog organizations are are teaching dogs to perform physical tasks to assist their owners — like turning on lights — more in the mold of a traditional service dog. For PTSD, dogs have been trained to do things like wake people from nightmares and create a buffer against crowds.”

However, it’s important to note that the cost of training and raising a service animal can be prohibitive; it range anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000, according to the New York Times. Because of how expensive this can be for many, some people with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety may opt to adopt an emotional support animal (aka, an ESA), rather than a service animal. An emotional service animal provides companionship and all sorts of mental health benefits for their owner. “Their presence, their unconditional love, their warmth and softness to pet and hold are all thought to be calming and mood-boosting,” Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different, explained to SELF back in February. “The need to care for them provides structure, purpose, and [a feeling of] being needed.”

In fact, as Today reported, the act of simple petting an animal can release feel-good endorphins, lower your blood pressure, and improve your interpersonal relationships. Despite these proven benefits, unlike service animals, emotional support animals are not protected under the ADA, meaning, they may not be allowed in public venues such as grocery stores, malls, or restaurants. This is, in part, because they are not trained to do tasks that mitigate someone’s disability. Legitimate emotional support animals can truly have a positive impact on one’s health. The loose definition of an emotional support animal means that any pet (including cats, dogs, bunnies, and other small critters) can be considered one.

Another term you may hear thrown around that’s often conflated with service animals and emotional support animals is therapy animals. In short, therapy animals are the pups and cats you’ll often see visiting hospitals, nursing homes, daycare centers, and hospices with their handlers. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), “therapy dogs do not have federally granted legal access to the types of public areas afforded to service dogs.” However, therapy dogs are trained, and must receive certification before going into a hospital.

Service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals can all play an important and therapeutic role in someone’s life. But, understanding the difference and respecting the guidelines set forth for each is crucial to ensure that people with disabilities don’t face discrimination or skepticism for having their service or emotional support animals.