What’s the Difference between a Service Animal, Emotional Support Animal, and Therapy Animal? Here’s What You Need to Know

Pets such as dogs, cats, etc. are not just animals, since their presence and loving nature make for a very beneficial and loving companion for their owner, and they sometimes feel like a true family member. Of course, it’s only natural that people want to spend as much time as possible with their furry friends, but sometimes they go as far as to try and claim them as an “emotional support animals” and receive special law treatment. Unfortunately, such behavior only stigmatizes the people who have an actual need for emotional support animals. What’s more, it’s not uncommon that people use the terms “emotional support animal”, “service animal” and “therapy animal” interchangeably even though their role and training levels are completely different. In the following text, you’ll find explanation on these differences.

As stated on the official website for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

Actually, dogs are not the only animals that are recognized as ADA service animals, but horses are, too. Miniature horses and dogs are ADA protected so that they can accompany their owners with special needs to places where they would be prohibited from otherwise. This includes restaurants, airplanes, stores, and hotels. These service animals are a medical necessity and are essential for people with disabilities. They also have a proper training. Therefore, they cannot be banned from or denied the right of housing even if there is a “no-pet” rule involved.

Service animals have to go through thorough assessment in order to be checked for the right kind of temperament, and then proceed to be trained in order to be able to perform all the necessary tasks. In general, this training is pretty rigorous, as service animals have to master the tasks of all kinds – from recognizing hyperglycemic episodes in diabetics to guiding visually impaired people as they walk.

Also, service animals, and especially service dogs, are not only greatly appreciated when it comes to serving people with physical issues, but those with mental disorders as well. In 2013, The Atlantic reported that “Some sexual assault survivors and service dog organizations are teaching dogs to perform physical tasks to assist their owners — like turning on lights — more in the mold of a traditional service dog. For PTSD, dogs have been trained to do things like wake people from nightmares and create a buffer against crowds.”

But, The New York Times revealed the not-so-lovely side of training service animals – the cost of it all. Actually, the whole training cost can range from $15,000 to $50,000. This is precisely the reason why some people with mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) may rather opt for an emotional support animal (ESA) than a service animal. Of course, ESA is still a great companion as they provide comfort and companionship to their owners. Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different explained it all like this: “Their presence, their unconditional love, their warmth and softness to pet and hold are all thought to be calming and mood-boosting. The need to care for them provides structure, purpose, and [a feeling of] being needed.”

What’s more, Today reported that an act of petting an animal itself is more than enough to make you happier and even healthier, as the said act releases endorphins and lowers the blood pressure. However, even though all these benefits of emotional support animals (ESAs) are obvious, they are still not protected under the ADA law like service animals. This means that ESAs may be banned from places such as grocery stores, malls, or restaurants, etc. The main reason for this is the fact that ESAs aren’t trained to help with disabilities and they aren’t even trained for basic domestic behavior. Essentially, all the pet animals can be considered ESAs.

One may also hear the third term used together with service animals and emotional support animals. This, of course, is a therapy animal. Basically, therapy animals are cats and pups that can often be seen in hospitals, daycare centers, and nursing homes. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), “therapy dogs do not have federally granted legal access to the types of public areas afforded to service dogs.” Still, all therapy dogs have to be trained and granted a certificate in order to be allowed into a hospital.

All animals, be it service, emotional support or therapy animals, can make a huge difference in someone’s life and better it considerably. However, it’s paramount for the differences to be recognized and accepted when it comes to their roles and training. That way, people with disabilities won’t be at risk of discrimination or skepticism because of their ESAs or service animals.