For several decades there has been a lot of miscommunication and confusion as to what a service animal is versus an emotional support animal and the rights each one has. Fortunately, there are different laws that define these features.
What is a Service Animal?
A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks directly related to a person’s disability. A disability isn’t limited to only a physical, but also includes mental illness disabilities that limit one or more major life activities, such as depression, severe anxiety, or PTSD. Some examples of what a service animal can do include:
- Guiding those that are blind
- Alerting those that are deaf or hard of hearing
- Assisting or pulling a wheelchair
- Protecting and alerting someone who is having a seizure or is about to have one
- Calming people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders
Service animals are working animals with a purpose to help change a person’s life and aid with their specific disability and needs.
What types of animals can qualify to be a service animal?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not restrict the type of dog breed that can become a service animal.
Ultimately, the dog must be of a size to effectively execute the tasks needed to help the person’s specific disability. For example, the most common breeds trained as guide dogs are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs.
What is the process to getting a service animal?
In order to have a service animal, a person must have written documentation from a healthcare provider that they have a physical or mental disability that affects their capabilities and limits major life functions. Qualifying for one is often simple, however, finding a service dog can be tricky as training a service dog is difficult and can sometimes take a long period of time.
Where can I get a service animal trained?
You can either adopt a trained service dog from a reputable trainer or bring your dog to a trainer. The ADA does not require or mandate service dogs to be professionally trained. YOU can train them yourself in the comfort of your own home!
What are some agencies/breeders who provide service animals?
There are many reputable agencies and breeders who can provide service animals for your specific needs depending on your location.
America’s Vet Dogs is also a reputable place to start.
Emotional Support Animal (ESA)
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Under federal and state housing laws, an Emotional Support Animal is an animal that provides emotional support and assistance to people with mental illnesses such as: depression, panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD, etc.  ESAs need to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness that limits everyday functionality.  It must be determined that the presence of an animal is needed to aid the mental health of the patient by a medical professional.
What types of animals can qualify to be an ESA?
Under The Fair Housing Act, emotional support animals must be “animals commonly kept in the household” such as dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, turtles, etc. “Unique animals,” which are not commonly kept in the household (such as monkeys, barnyard animals, reptiles other than turtles), are not allowed unless the disabled person can satisfy a “substantial burden of demonstrating a disability-therapeutic need for the specific type of animal.”
What are the key differences between an ESA and Service Animal?
The biggest difference is a Service Animal must be trained to assist their person’s disability, whereas, an Emotional Support Animal does the job by just being present. ESAs are excellent companions and can sometimes be used as treatment plans for mental health. However, by the ADA’s standards, they are not considered Service Animals. ESAs are only meant to provide support for those with mental or emotional distress. Unlike Service Animals, specialized training isn’t required for ESAs.
If a person’s dog calms them during an anxiety attack, does that qualify it as a Service Animal or ESA?
It depends. The ADA distinguishes psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense and understand that an anxiety attack is about to happen and takes specific actions to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if only the dog’s presence provides relief, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.
Do I need to register my animal to become an ESA?
An ESA letter is essential if you want to officially qualify. ESA owners always have the option to register their pet as an ESA, but registration and ID cards are not a substitute for obtaining an official ESA letter. Only those with valid ESA letters should register their emotional support animals in a database and obtain an ID Card.
Are they considered a Service Animal if I have a doctor’s note that says I need them at all times?
It does not matter if a person has a note from a doctor that states that the person has a disability and needs to have the animal for emotional support. A doctor’s letter does not turn an animal into a service animal.