Pitbull wearing a service dog vest

Emotional Support Animal and Service Animal: What Is the Difference?

6 min read

Can you imagine what human life would be without animals? Throughout history, animals took weight from our shoulders. First domesticated dogs helped us to hunt and kept us safe at night. Bulls and oxen did the hard work in the field. Cats came along to save harvest from rodents. Horses and camels connected continents in trade routes. Many knights and cavalrymen were saved in battle by their trusty steeds. And so much more. And animals did so despite our cruelty, greed, and poor treatment. Security, agriculture, pest control, warfare, trade, and communication... One can say our civilization itself was a gift from our four-legged helpers.

And they keep helping us today when we don't rely on them as much. There are dogs in service with our police force that help to catch criminals, and with our military overseas, saving them from IEDs and other dangers. There are service dogs and mini-horses, assisting disabled people every single day: helping to hear, helping to see, pulling the wheelchairs, bringing prosthetics or crutches to their owners’ beds every morning. There are therapy dogs in our hospitals that bring happiness and joy to the lives of the sick and terminally ill.

There are pets in almost every household that teach kids to care and take responsibility. Pets guard property, bring harmony to families and cheer up the lonely. There are many stories about animals that saved their owners in the time of need. And not only the owners. A black Labrador named Midnight saved man's elderly neighbor during a cold wave in Minnesota recently.

But there is yet another category of animal helpers that not everyone is aware of yet. Emotional Support Animals or ESA for short. Now, what do they do? They help people with mental illnesses and disorders to overcome those conditions. They do so by alleviating anxiety or by making a person with depression care for something and going through a routine of, say, walking a dog. ESAs ease emotional distress and bring solace in the time of need. They bring support to a person with PTSD or help a person with autism to build an empathic connection.

Now it’s only fair that for all their selfless gifts, animals get some legal recognition. And they do. In this article, we will overview some terms and legalese around ESAs and service animals.

Types of protected animals

There are three distinct categories of legally protected animals with different rights. To make matters more confusing, different pieces of legislation and government institutions use different terminology to address them. And to make things even worse, there is divergent terminology in the legislation of individual states, and also there are court precedents. It's a mess. But as we mentioned, there are only three categories, they are just named differently here and there. So, to tackle this legal topic, let’s first get our terminology straight.

Service animals

Guide dog helping blind man in the city
The role of service animals is to provide assistance to people with physical disabilities

Service animals are a large category of different types of trained animals. It includes:

  • Guide animals for visually impaired;
  • Hearing assistance animals for hearing impaired;
  • Assistance animals for physically disabled;

Sometimes a term ‘trained support animal’ is used, which might refer to animals, trained to help people with seizures or to stop PTSD related symptoms, or any of the above. The key differentiation from ESAs is that service animals are trained and need to undergo special certification. From a legal standpoint, such a service animal is considered to be a disabled person’s implement and taking it away, abusing or harassing it in any way, is akin to stealing a one-legged man's crutch or a prosthetic. These animals are generally dogs but there are cases for service mini-horses too.

Therapy animals

Therapy Dog Visiting Young Female Patient In Hospital
Therapy pets cannot belong to one owner only

Therapy animals are certified and trained animals that help in hospitals, and other health and public institutions. They must be accompanied by a professional handler. Therapy animal's responsibility ranges from bringing comfort and cheering up youngest and elderly patients to actual medical therapy. Usually, therapy animals are dogs, though, in some cases, other types of animals do this job too. 

Emotional support animals

Young beautiful girl hugging horse at nature
ESAs bring comfort to emotionally disabled people

ESAs are prescribed by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals as treatment. These animals do not need training or certification. ESAs provide help to their owners just by virtue of being with them. Emotional support animals are used to treat many mental disorders. Any animal can be an ESA, regardless of species or breeds. But keep in mind, some laws use the term support animals for ESAs.

Legal status and terminology

Word ADA Americans with Disabilities Act from cubes and books
The ADA Act does not cover emotional support animals

So, what are the legal status of service animals and ESAs? Let's find out!

The ADA Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act only covers service animals, specifically dogs. It doesn't cover ESAs. This act guarantees disabled people with service animals equal access to all public establishments and institutions, regardless of a no pet policy. Employers of the aforementioned establishments can’t demand any documentation, proving the fact of an individual's disability or dog's service animal status. They are only allowed to inquire whether it is a service animal and what function it performs.

Service dogs are not restricted by breed or size so any limitations, the local government might have on big dogs or dangerous breeds, do not apply to service animals. However, any local laws, regarding dog registration and vaccination do apply. Also, a service animal’s owner is still responsible for an animal’s behavior. For more information, read this FAQ from the U.S. Department of Justice.


The Federal Fair Housing Act guarantees equal access to housing for protected categories of people. This includes disabled people who require the help of a service animal or people with mental disorders who might require the help of an ESA. A landlord can’t discriminate against ESA or service animal owners. A landlord must waive a ‘No Pet’ policy, pet deposit or fee and allow to make limited modifications to the property for the accommodation of an animal and its owner. However, if you are an ESA owner, you might need to provide valid documentation, for example, an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional, proving a need for an emotional support animal. For more information, read this joined HUD and DOJ statement regarding accommodations under the Federal Fair Housing Act.


The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) protects both ESAs and service animals. Airlines must let them inside the cabin free of charge. An animal must fit under a seat or on a person’s lap. However, an exception was made at least once for a mini-horse. An owner must warn them 48 hours before the flight, and an animal must behave. Air carriers might have their regulations in place, so we suggest to figure them out in advance.


Dog paws and human hand close up

By federal law, ESAs and service dogs have similar rights regarding housing and traveling by plane, but only service animals are guaranteed access to public establishments. However, ESAs might be guaranteed access to public places by your state law.

Some states have a service animal training law. This means that future service dogs are allowed to public establishments to be better trained for real situations they might need to handle in the future.  There are also some state laws about false service animal claims, punishable by small fines or even jail time. So please, make sure you don't make false claims that your ESA or pet is a service animal.

Laws can be confusing, but they are there to protect our rights and the rights of our four-legged friends. It's important to know definitions and distinctions. Especially, if you are considering getting a service dog or an emotional support animal yourself. Only a society, where everyone knows and respects each other's rights, can evolve. And that includes the wellbeing of our little helpers that keep making our life better and don’t ask anything in return.

by GetESA

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