There are significant differences between a service animal and an emotional support animal (ESA), but they have one major thing in common—to help people with a disorder or a disability overcome their hardships. Even though both ESA and service animals are assistance animals, their functions and applicable laws are quite different. This article will help you understand the difference between emotional support animals and service animals. You’ll be able to make an educated decision when you need to select the type of assistance animal that is right for you.

What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

Research by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) indicates that animals can have a healing effect on people with emotional or mental disorders. A study published in 2016 found that people with long-term mental health problems experienced a stronger sense of emotional and social support and security with animals in their homes. An emotional support animal can do just this.

Emotional support dog with a toy
An Emotional Support Animal provides comfort and support with their presence at home to people with an emotional or mental disability.

Emotional Support Animals For Emotional and Psychological Disorders

Emotional support animals help people with emotional or psychological disorders. ESAs fulfill an essential role in the recovery of people with mental illness. They provide affection, comfort, and security to people who need it the most. Although pets also comfort their owners, handlers of ESAs are assessed by a licensed mental health professional. Their provider determines that the presence and comfort of an ESA are necessary for their wellbeing. 

Emotional Support Animal Training and Pertinent Laws

ESAs have no requirements for training. However, because ESAs are integral to a person’s healthcare treatment, the Fair Housing Act allows ESA to live with their handler in “no pets allowed” residences without paying extra pet fees. 

Qualify for your ESA Letter Online (linked)

Three easy steps to get an ESA Letter with ESA Doctors
If you would like to work with a licensed therapist to qualify for an Emotional Support Animal, ESADoctors may be able to assist you.
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What is a Service Animal?

Like emotional support animals, service animals are vital for people with disabilities. Service animals are dogs trained to perform particular tasks for their handler. These tasks are usually activities of daily living or skills that ensure a person’s safety or wellbeing that their handler cannot perform due to their disability. 

Service dog outdoors
A service dog provides task-trained assistance to handlers with a mental or physical disability.

Service Animals For Mental and Physical Disabilities 

Unlike ESA, service animals can assist people with either mental or physical disabilities. For example, psychiatric service dogs can physically help to prevent a person from hurting themselves. Or a mobility service dog can keep a person with ambulation (walking) issues from falling. 

Service Animal Training and Pertinent Laws

In contrast to ESA, service animals require months—sometimes years—of intense training. They train to perform the skills a person with a disability needs, and service animals must train to behave well in public. Because federal laws allow service animals to accompany their handler everywhere the general public is allowed, service animals must perform safely in public and stressful situations. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), FHA, and Air Carrier Access Act are all federal laws that protect a handler’s rights to have their service animal with them at all times. As service animals are such an essential part of a person’s day-to-day activities, these federal laws must remain adhered to. The laws allow service animals onto airplanes, in stores, and restaurants, and enable them to live in areas where no pets are allowed. 

Want to know if you qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter? Get your assessment from a licensed therapist (linked)

Know the Difference Between Service Animal and Emotional Support Animal

When looking into assistance for you or your loved one, it’s crucial to know the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal. This allows you to gauge the level of assistance you or your loved one need and whether an ESA or service animal is right for them. For example, someone struggling with depression who can function independently may benefit from an ESA in their home. On the other hand, someone with depression who harms themselves may find that they need a service dog instead. In that instance, a dog might intercede by pawing their handler when they begin to self-harm—wherever they may be. 

Understanding that ESAs do not have the same federal protections as service dogs can avoid misunderstandings with the public. ESAs don’t have access to many areas (no pets allowed restaurants and stores, as an example). Meanwhile, service dogs can follow their handlers into many public places ESAs aren’t allowed (grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, etc.). 

Although there are many differences between service animals and emotional support animals, they prove that the human-animal bond exists. These animals help humans in unimaginable ways, enabling us to heal, recover, and manage our mental and physical challenges. Without this unique bond, life wouldn’t be the same. 

Additional Reading

If you’re undecided if an emotional support animal or a service dog is right for you, find more information in the articles below: