What’s the Difference Between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal?

Humans and animals have been working together for a very long time, and we’ve evolved some pretty unique relationships.†Working animals search for bombs, herd livestock, offer personal protection, sniff out agricultural contraband on international borders and assist disabled people with tasks of daily living. Meanwhile, pets — like the cat sitting next to me — offer emotional fulfillment†and serve†a key role in†our lives.

The relationship between animals and the disability community is sometimes a source of confusion: What’s the difference between a pet and a service animal, after all? What’s an “emotional support animal”? And what kinds of legal protections†exist for these animals?

These questions aren’t just semantic: Disabled people count on their service animals, and confusion about their rights routinely leads to issues like harassment and denial of service.

What makes a service animal?

Service animals — in the United States, at least — are defined†as dogs or miniature horses who perform specific tasks for their handlers that their handlers cannot do on their own. Some examples include:

  • Guide dogs,†which help blind/low vision people navigate. (Seeing Eye is a registered trademark of a specific guide dog organization.)
  • Diabetic alert dogs,†which†detect low blood sugar and alert their handlers.
  • Psychiatric service dogs,†which†assist people with mental health conditions. They may† apply pressure to their handlers to calm them, remind their handlers to take medications, scout rooms for threats to reassure someone with PTSD or distract handlers who are engaging in self-harming behavior like picking or cutting. Their work isn’t reactive, but predictive — they work closely with their handlers and learn to identify the warning signs of an episode.
  • Stability dogs, which help people stand and walk safely if they have trouble standing on their own.
  • Mobility dogs, which help people who have limited mobility or dexterity. Some can pull wheelchairs, while others turn on lights, open doors and cupboards and perform similar tasks to help their handlers stay independent.
  • Seizure alert dogs, which detect subtle changes that precede a seizure and help their handlers get to safety.
  • Autism dogs, which may paw or lie on their handlers when they’re feeling distressed, distract an autistic person who appears to be wandering into a dangerous situation or help†them manage their medications.

Things to know about service animals:

  • They are not required to wear livery or markings, though some handlers opt to use them to alert passersby.
  • They are entitled to accommodations in places where animals would not ordinarily be allowed. This includes transportation, housing, hotels, restaurants and other so-called public accommodations. If members of the public are allowed there, so are service animals.
  • They are not required to be registered or certified, and it is not legal to ask their handlers for “papers” or details about their medical conditions.
  • They do not have to be trained by specific organizations or trainers, and some handlers train their own service animals.
  • If there’s a question about whether an animal is a service animal, it is legal to ask†for examples of tasks it performs.
  • A service animal can be asked to leave if it is being disruptive or is clearly out of control.
  • Service animals are exempt from animal-associated fees like home and hotel deposits.
  • Service animals can also be excluded from hazardous or controlled environments, like operating rooms, clean rooms and other facilities where having an animal would be unsafe.

What makes an emotional support or comfort animal?

The legal status of emotional support animals is much more nebulous and poorly defined. These animals do not perform specific tasks for their handlers, instead offering general emotional support. For example, someone with anxiety may feel calmer when she has her dog around, even though the dog isn’t doing anything in particular.

You do not need to be disabled to have an ESA, though you†doneed to be disabled to receive accommodations.†And that disability must “substantially limit one or more life activities.” Additionally, the handler must be able to show that the ESA “alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms.” For example, a person with PTSD†and†agoraphobia might have an ESA that calms her anxiety, making it possible for her to leave the house. Her animal doesn’t perform a specific task, but the animalalleviates her disability.

ESAs are most commonly used by mentally ill people — whether their illness is disabling or not — because having an animal can help people stay calm, focused and grounded. But because ESAs don’t necessarily provide a disability-specific service, their†owners have far fewer legal protections.

Things to know about emotional support animals:

  • Any animal can be considered an ESA, though dogs and cats are the most common.
  • ESAs†aren’t the same thing as psychiatric service dogs. A psychiatric service dog must be trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled person, and these tasks must be something the handler can’t independently complete.
  • Training isn’t required for ESAs, though they do need to comply with basic behavioral standards, like being housebroken and not attacking other animals.
  • They may be entitled to accommodation in housing that otherwise†prohibits pets –†with some exceptions,†iftheir handler has a disability. In facilities where pets are allowed, qualifying ESAs receive waivers on pet deposits, pet rent and related fees.
  • Under the Air Carrier Access Act, they†may also be entitled to†accommodation on aircraft — allowed to fly for free in the cabin, without having to ride in a crate or carrier — if their handlers can produce medical documentation†of disability, paired with confirmation that the animal mitigates their disability. Most airlines require 48 hours notice.
  • Emotional support animals are not entitled to the “public accommodations” rights of service animals: If a public building — post office, restaurant, theater, etc. — indicates that†animals are not allowed, ESAs are not permitted.
  • Requests to accommodate an ESA must be submitted in writing to a landlord, and the landlord can request proof of an applicant’s disability status in the form of a doctor’s note or other documentation — which is not the case with service animals.
  • As with service animals, emotional support animals aren’t required to wear livery, nor do they need “certification” — though certain companies promising certificates or credentials aim to take advantage of people. There’s no such thing as “legal certification” for either service or emotional support animals.
  • State by state laws vary considerably, with some states and municipalities offering expanded legal protections.

Why is the distinction important?

In recent years, there’s been growing buzz about “scams” and “fakers,” people trying to pass pets off as service or emotional support animals, or†propagating misleading information about the legal protections available to emotional support animals.

The reason why someone wants an animal with them shouldn’t matter, but when animals are ill-behaved or cause problems — or people appear to be taking advantage of accommodations like waivers of animal-associated fees — questions are bound to arise.

Service animalshave widespread, general access to public accommodations, because they help their handlers live independently and interact with the community. Denial of service is a civil rights violation, whether it’s a taxi refusing to pick up a blind person, an airline refusing boarding or a restaurant kicking someone out. The lack of legal certification and livery requirements is designed to make them more accessible — many disabled people need service dogs, but can’t afford costly certification. Service animals are a canine — or equine — extension of their handlers.

Emotional support animalshave been extended select protections for qualifying animals in specific settings under federal law: housing and air travel.†They aren’t entitled to access public accommodations.

One reason many people attempt to present their pets as emotional support animals or service animals is very understandable: They’re worried about being kicked out of “no pets” housing. Others want to take their pets with them everywhere, and they aren’t aware that ESAs aren’t entitled to public accommodations protections, or deliberately mislead people as to the nature of legal protections afforded to them — sometimes by falsely claiming that a pet is a service animal.

The solution to the anti-animal attitudes on display in many settings isn’t to encroach on the civil rights of disabled people, though: We should be lobbying to make more places pet-friendly!

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture


Stephanie s
Stephanie s3 months ago

Thank you

Stephanie s
Stephanie s3 months ago

Thank you

Paulo R
Paulo R3 months ago


Paulo R
Paulo R3 months ago


Paulo R
Paulo R3 months ago


Laura R
Laura R3 months ago

Thank you.

Marigold A
Past Member 3 months ago

I agree with Nena C. Too many fakes are spoiling the pot for the true ESA's.

Cathy B
Cathy B3 months ago

A great article. Thank you.

Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago


Veronica Danie
Veronica D3 months ago

Thank you so very much.