Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals: Major Differences

You must have heard terms like – Service Animal, Therapy Animal and Emotional Support Animal. But, do you know the differences between them? You must understand the differences between these, especially in legal terms, if you are planning to own one. In this article, we will discuss all points of difference that you, as an owner, must know.

Legal Definitions of Service Animal and Emotional Support Animal

In legal terms i.e. according to Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a Service Animal is any dog that has been ‘individually’ trained to do a job or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. Individuals with a disability include those with physical, mental, sensory, psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Service animals are protected under the ADA.

On the other hand, emotional support animals, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are any animal that provides emotional support alleviating one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. They provide comfort, solace or companionship to the person. These animals may sometimes help a person with depression, anxiety or certain phobias but they do not have any specific training to help persons with disabilities. Emotional Support Animals are NOT protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

(Similarity: Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals are both protected under Air Carrier Access Act. This means both the categories of animals can accompany their owner in the cabin of an aircraft. They are protected under Fair Housing Act too).

guide dog and other service animals are very helpful for persons with specific disabilities

Differences between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Following table lists major differences between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals:

Differences between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
Criteria for Differentiation Service Animal Emotional Support Animal
Type of Animal According to the ADA definition, only dogs can be service animals. However, in some special circumstances, miniature ponies too are trained as service animals. Any animal can be an emotional support animal if it provides emotional support to its handler. Dogs are the most common ESA followed by cats but other animals too are kept for emotional support.
Functioning Service dogs are trained for helping their owners with disabilities. They perform specific tasks like being a guide for a visually impaired person or being a hearing dog for a deaf person. The task performed by a service animal must be directly related to its handler’s disability. Emotional support animals are therapeutic animals and do not need to perform any specific task. They help their owner just by being there with them.
Ownership To own a service dog one must have a disability protected under ADA. No one without a disability can legally own a service animal. People do not necessarily need to have a disability protected under ADA to own an emotional support animal. However, emotional support animals are generally prescribed, if there’s no such prescription from a qualified doctor the animal would better be called a pet.
Other Requirements as per ADA Apart from being trained individually as per the need of their owner, service animals need to be trained to urinate and defecate outside the home or in a special place. (PwDs can train their dogs themselves there’s no compulsion of professional training). The animal need to be under the control of its handler. As emotional support animals are not covered under ADA, there are no such requirements for them under ADA. They are like other pets in this regard.
Protection Under Law Service Animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Emotional Support Animals are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act even if a doctor provides a note stating that the person has a disability and requires an animal for emotional support
Rights Conferred by the Law Service Animals are not treated as pets under the law. Hence, service animals cannot be denied access to public places even if the place has a no-pet policy. No extra fee or surcharge be imposed on service animals. The handler is not required to have any document as proof. They may only be asked about the function for which their pet has been trained. Emotional support animals may not be given access to every place with their owner. They may or may not be accommodated at the request of their handler. Moreover, the handler may need to carry their medical letter as proof that they are accompanied by an emotional support animal. Even after that private businesses have no obligation to let the animal on their premises.
Access to Public Schools Students with a disability who need the assistance of a service animal are permitted by the law to take their service animal with them to public school. Emotional Support Animals are seldom allowed in a public school.


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