Emotional Support Animal vs Service Animal: What’s the Difference?

Learn the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog. Although some people group these terms together, they are not interchangeable.

Dogs fulfill many important roles in our lives, like bodyguard, exercise buddy and alarm clock. And we give important labels to our dogs to describe the roles they play, like “emotional support dog” or “service animal.” Although some people group these terms together, they are not interchangeable. The two terms differ with respect to the roles that animals play and our legal rights as owners. Scroll down to learn the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog, and the associated rights that come with each. 

What is an emotional support animal?

An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides comfort to their owner. They help people with psychological or emotional disorders like depression, anxiety and panic attacks.

Learn the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog. Although some people group these terms together, they are not interchangeable.
Many assume that in order to be considered an emotional support animal, all they have to do is order a special vest and get a bogus letter online. Companies selling these items are in no way legitimate. 

Real emotional support pets must be prescribed by a licensed medical professional for a patient with a diagnosed disorder. 

What is a service animal?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is an animal that has been trained to do work and/or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, whether it be physical, intellectual or emotional. The tasks performed must be directly related to the person’s disability.

Learn the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog. Although some people group these terms together, they are not interchangeable.

Some examples of what service animals do include:

  • guiding the blind
  • aiding the deaf and/or hearing impaired 
  • pulling wheelchairs, picking up objects, or carrying items for people with impaired mobility
  • alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure
  • monitoring blood levels for a person with diabetes
  • police dogs
  • search and rescue dogs

What is the difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog?

Many people use the terms ESA and service dog interchangeably, but they are not the same thing

Emotional support animals are companion animals.

Service animals are working animals, not pets

Learn the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog. Although some people group these terms together, they are not interchangeable.

The main difference between the two is that, although service dogs do provide comfort and emotional support, they also perform a specific action that their owner can’t perform themselves.

This can include something like pushing an elevator button for someone with mobility issues, or alerting a person when their blood sugar is low. It’s a job! 

Emotional support animals are not considered service animals under the ADA because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task. 

What rights does a service dog have?

A service dog is legally able to accompany their handler anywhere they go. They are  exempt from any “no pets allowed” policies that businesses may have (remember, a service dog is not a pet!). 

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), privately owned businesses that serve the public, like restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxis, theaters, concert venues and sports facilities must allow entry to people with disabilities and their service dogs. They cannot isolate the person or their service animal from other patrons, or treat them less favorably.

Plus, they cannot be charged extra fees. For example, a hotel cannot charge an extra cleaning fee if a service dog is staying there, and a train cannot require a service dog to have a boarding ticket.  

Are there places exempt from the ADA?

Yes. 

Those places include:

  • Swimming pools
  • Religious institutions and places of worship (like churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques)
  • Federal agencies (such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
  • Commercial airlines (people with disabilities are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act instead)

Also, service animals do not have to be allowed access if their presence will “fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program.” For example, they could be restricted from a specific area of a dorm that’s reserved for students allergic to dog dander. 

What rights does an emotional support dog have?

Emotional support animals are protected when it comes to housing and traveling. They’re covered by the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). 

Fair Housing Act (FHA)

The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that states that landlords are required to make  “reasonable accommodation” to allow pets who serve as emotional support animals, even if the building has a “no pets policy” in place. 

That means people with an emotional support animal cannot be discriminated against or turned away from housing just because they have an ESA.

Be warned: there are situations in which a landlord or property owner does not have to comply with the the Fair Housing Act. For example, if the ESA poses a risk to the health and safety of other tenants, or if the animal is too large for the accommodation. 

Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)

The Air Carrier Access Act allows people to fly free of charge with their emotional support animal in the aircraft cabin.

Each airline has different requirements for people to fly with their ESA. They often ask for at least 48 hours’ notice of intention to travel with an ESA, supporting documentation from a medical professional and a signed statement regarding the animal’s basic training. 

Click here for more information on traveling with pets. 


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Learn the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog. Although some people group these terms together, they are not interchangeable.

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Hi! This is our dog Boogie, the traveling pug. He's been on over 20 flights to three continents. We're here to show you how to travel with your dog. Join us as we take planes, trains, and automobiles to different parts of the world.

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