Emotional support animals are often confused as being service animals or therapy animals. Many people use the terms interchangeably, and therefore expect them to be treated the same in public spaces. While you might think your emotional support animal provides a valuable service to you, they are not technically considered service animals.

Here’s why:

ESAs and Service Animals

By definition, a service animal has undergone intense training to be able to perform certain tasks for its handler. For example, a service dog might alert its diabetic owner of low blood sugar. It might fetch medications or other items for its owner. It could guide a blind person safely across a busy intersection or tell a deaf person if someone is at the front door. In other words, service animals are workers. They are always “on duty” and aren’t the type of animals to stop and play fetch or be petted.

Emotional support animals serve a very different role. They are not trained to perform specific tasks (particularly life-saving ones, like service animals). Rather, their sole role is to provide companionship to their owner. They chase away feelings of loneliness, put smiles on faces, and love unconditionally.

ESAs and Service Animals Serve Different People. In addition to the purpose of an ESA and service animal, both types cater to different people with different needs.

Service animals are reserved for individuals who have a physical, mental, or intellectual disability. Many times, these disabilities are noticeable from the outside (e.g., a blind person, an amputee, etc.). These individuals need help performing daily living tasks, and service animals help to fill those gaps in care.

Emotional support animals are reserved for those who experience a mental or emotional condition. Oftentimes, these conditions are not easily detected on the surface. Examples include bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety, extreme phobias, and dementia. And while many of us feel stressed or anxious from time to time, the difference lies in diagnosis. Only a licensed healthcare provider who is treating a patient for a mental disorder can officially recommend an emotional support animal as a treatment.

Granted, people with physical disabilities might experience anxiety or other mental conditions, too. Their service animal may also act as an emotional support animal to them. But an emotional support animal cannot also be a service animal.

ESAs and Service Animals Breed and Species Restrictions

Because service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for their owners, it’s clear that not every animal will fit the bill. How can you train a goldfish to retrieve the newspaper, anyway?

That’s why service animals are limited to certain breeds and species. Service dogs are by far the most popular, with breeds like golden retrievers, German shepherds, poodles, and Labrador retrievers being top choices. According to Adata.org, miniature horses, pigs, and monkeys may also be considered service animals. The main factor is whether the animal has been properly trained to serve its owner. Wild animals or animals that are not tamed and trained do not qualify as service animals.

Emotional support animals have a much broader definition. There are typically no breed or species restrictions since the main focus is on choosing an animal that provides comfort and companionship. Emotional support animals span a range of options, including but not limited to:

  • Pigs
  • Ducks
  • Monkeys
  • Peacocks
  • Rabbits
  • Snakes
  • Horses
  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Ferrets
  • Sugar gliders
  • Rats
  • Hedgehogs

This list isn’t meant to be complete, but it does demonstrate the variety of animals a person can choose from if they qualify for an ESA letter.

Service Animals Legal Protections

Perhaps the most important differentiation between a service animal and an emotional support animal is the legal and privileges of each, particularly in public spaces. It’s important to understand this difference and set the right expectations for accommodations.

Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and can freely go wherever their owners go. They offer protection and perform life-saving tasks, which don’t allow them to be separated from their owners. Service animals are welcome in all public spaces, including restaurants, hotel rooms, retail stores, office buildings, parks, malls, airports, public transportation, and anywhere else their owner goes. Building owners, landlords, and managers must grant the service animal entry as a reasonable accommodation to the individual.

This isn’t true for emotional support animals, however. While landlords must allow emotional support animals to live with their owners even if pets are not allowed, that’s about where the legal accommodations end. Store managers, hotel operators, and airlines are not required by law to grant your ESA entry into public spaces. Those that do so are providing reasonable accommodation of their own free will. Those that do not will not face any legal repercussions.

This is a tough differentiation to make for some individuals. Many feel their rights are being violated when their emotional support animal cannot travel with them or go into public spaces. There’s a lot of misinformation online that says this is a right of emotional support animals, but this simply isn’t true. Knowing the difference ahead of time can save you time, frustration, and embarrassment, as well as help you plan ahead for different accommodations when you can’t bring your emotional support animal with you.