Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animals: What’s the Difference?

emotional support animals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Although service, therapy and emotional support animals are sometimes referred to interchangeably, they are distinct categories, each with its own definition
  • Service animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability
  • Only dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses, qualify as service animals
  • Emotional support animals can be any species of animal and no special training is required

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Animals offer support to humans in innumerable ways, from acting as loyal companions to acting as therapy and emotional support animals. Other animals act as service animals, providing invaluable medical support to their owners and, as such, being offered certain protections, such as access to public spaces, not afforded to other pets.

Because animals are becoming increasingly important in helping people with disabilities and other types of therapy, it’s necessary to understand what each type of service and support animal offers, as well as what type of access the animals are given.

“Some people misrepresent their animals as assistance animals in order to bring them to places where pets are not allowed, to avoid fees or out of a misunderstanding of the animal's role,” according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which is why the association has taken steps to identify and explain four types of service and support animals: assistance animals, service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals.1

What Are Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animals?

Although service, therapy and emotional support animals are sometimes referred to interchangeably, they are distinct categories, each with its own definition, according to AVMA.2

Assistance Animal

As defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an assistance animal is “Any animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”

If certain conditions are met, a person may be entitled to keep an assistance animal in a housing facility that would otherwise prohibit animals. Namely, the assistance animal must provide assistance relating to the person’s disability, and without said assistance, the person must not be able to “use and enjoy a dwelling or to participate in the housing service or program.”

Service Animal

The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA) defines a service animal as, “Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition.”

Miniature horses, however, have been added as an exception, provided they are housebroken, under the handler’s control, can be accommodated by the facility and will not compromise safety regulations. Examples of tasks that service animals may perform include:

Assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks

Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds

Providing nonviolent protection or rescue work

Pulling a wheelchair

Assisting an individual during a seizure

Alerting individuals to the presence of allergens

Retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone

Providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities

Helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

Emotional support animals, according to the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), can be any species of animal, who must fulfill a disability-related need and whose use is supported by a physician, psychiatrist or mental health professional. ESAs do not have to be trained to perform a particular task, and do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

That said, they may be permitted in housing facilities that would otherwise prohibit animals, and the ACAA allows some ESAs to travel on airlines at no extra cost, often with supportive documentation required.

Therapy Animal

According to the ACAA, therapy animals take part in animal-assisted interventions in which there’s a “goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature.”

Why Emotional Support Animals Are Sometimes Controversial

While service animals are highly trained and can even receive certifications as psychiatric service dogs to help people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia and other mental conditions, emotional support animals do not require specific training to provide support to someone with a psychological disability.

In fact, ESAs are often pets that help a person to cope with daily life or situations they may otherwise find intolerable. Service animals may accompany their owners into places where pets ordinarily would not be welcome, such as stores, restaurants, museums, and on airline flights and other forms of public transportation. ESAs have more limited public access, but in some cases may travel by air and reside in pet-restricted houses along with their owners.

The controversy has arisen when some people have pushed the line of emotional support animal, claiming their pet is necessary for emotional support just to enjoy the access benefits. That being said, in a survey of over 500 Americans, both service dogs and emotional support dogs were viewed in a mostly favorable light. Researchers noted:3

“In general, service dogs are more likely to be perceived as helping with a legitimate need, and their access to public spaces is viewed favorably. While there are some concerns about the legitimacy and necessary access rights for emotional support dogs, members of the public correctly identified the roles and rights of therapy dogs.

Despite the media’s focus on abuses and false representation of these dogs, most participants reported feeling the majority of people are not taking advantage of the system.”

The Many Benefits of Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animals

There is seemingly no end to the emotional, physical and mental benefits dogs offer to humans. Regular visits with therapy dogs may improve mental health and well-being among people seeking treatment at addiction and mental health facilities, for instance.4 Animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) have also been used among Canada’s correctional population, among which mental health and addictions are a major concern. Many inmates also have a history of trauma.

According to research by Colleen Dell, Ph.D., of the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and colleagues, introducing visiting therapy dogs may benefit mental health while positively influencing the larger prison environment.5 Research published in the journal Anthrozoos even found that animal-assisted therapy decreased the need for pain medication in people who had received joint-replacement therapy.6

In addition, research by the Delta Society, the most recognized name in the field of animal-assisted therapy, suggests holding, stroking or even simply seeing an animal may lower blood pressure while lessening feelings of hostility and increasing self-esteem. For service dogs, dogs can be trained to detect the scent of allergens, like peanuts or gluten, in food and even provide comfort to witnesses, particularly children, in the courtroom.

If you happen to see a service, therapy or emotional support animal in public (and there’s a good chance someday you will), be aware that certain rules of etiquette apply. Service dogs, in particular, should never be approached, talked to or touched unless permission is asked for and granted by the dog’s handler.

And take no offense if the handler asks you not to interact with the dog — distracting a working dog can result in potential harm to the handler, and can interfere with the dog’s focus and ability to follow potentially life-saving commands or cues.