Regarding COVID-19: We are currently open and taking residential level.

Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal

Support Animal

Table of Contents

Animals can be beneficial for your mental health, so animal therapy is often included as part of treatment plans. However, there are distinctions between an emotional support animal and a service animal for people with disabilities. 

Below, we detail everything you should know about different types of assistance animals and public accommodations that may be available for them. We also answer some of the service animal questions people most often have. 

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

An emotional support animal (ESA), most commonly an emotional support dog, is a pet and not a service animal. A mental health professional stating there is a need can legally prescribe an emotional support animal. Even so, airlines aren’t required to accommodate them, and they do not have protection under federal law.

Emotional support animals are also called companion animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs. 

You can informally consider your dog or another pet your emotional support animal. Still, to have this legal distinction, a licensed mental health professional has to prescribe the pet as they would medication. 

A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist can evaluate if the animal’s presence is needed for a patient’s mental health.

The dog can be any age or breed, and there may be numerous benefits, such as companionship and easing anxiety or depression symptoms.

The mental health benefits of emotional support animals can include:

  • Emotional support animals can benefit conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, specific phobias like agoraphobia, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders.
  • Research shows animals and especially dogs, can help you produce happiness neurotransmitters. For example, dogs increase dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that associates with pleasure, love, and bonding.
  • When you’re taking care of an animal, it helps increase your capacity to feel love, easing depression. If you feel lonely, having an animal around can help you feel loved and safe.
  • In situations that trigger anxiety, having a support animal can reduce those feelings and be a positive coping strategy.
  • Animals give unconditional love, which is beneficial for someone struggling with mental health symptoms. When you feel like you’re receiving love, you might be better able to form meaningful relationships with the people around you.
  • Emotional support animals can work alongside other forms of treatment for mental illnesses. Having a support animal is somewhat like other lifestyle recommendations a counselor or therapist might make, such as eating a nutritious diet and getting exercise. Support animals can be used along with cognitive-behavioral therapy.
  • Taking care of a pet, especially a dog, can encourage you to get outside and get exercise, which can help with mental health symptoms.
  • Having a pet can help your physical health, reduce blood pressure and improve your ability to cope with pain.
  • Pets comfort people who have a history of experiencing trauma.
  • Having a household pet can generally improve your quality of life even outside of having a mental illness. For example, older people often benefit from having a pet. 

Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal

Legally and in terms of regulations and guidelines, it gets tricky to distinguish between a support animal vs. emotional support animals and service animals in public settings. 

  • Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are animals that are individually trained to do work and perform specific tasks to aid someone with a disability.
  • These disabilities can include sensory, intellectual disabilities, mental disabilities, and physical or psychiatric disabilities.
  •  A service animal is sometimes also just known as a support animal. Service animals have protection under the ADA for a person with a disability-related need because of their formal training. Service animals undergo extensive training to be assistance animals. 
  • By contrast, emotional service animals provide emotional comfort or support that helps with symptoms of a disability. Emotional support animals don’t have any special training to help persons with disabilities. 
  • Instead, emotional support animals primarily provide companionship and help with loneliness and symptoms like anxiety and depression, in contrast to the definition of service animals. 
  • An emotional support animal is the same, legally, as a therapy animal. These animals don’t have protection under the ADA for individuals with disabilities. 
Support Animal

Emotional support animals or ESAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act. According to the Fair Housing Act, people can’t be discriminated against because of a disability when obtaining housing. 

That means that pet rules and limitations don’t apply if you have a prescription for an ESA. Your landlord or other housing providers can’t charge you a pet deposit fee if you have your ESA live with you.

  • Emotional Support Animals, when prescribed, are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act. 
  • According to the Air Carrier Access act, both service animals and ESAs can be with their handler in an aircraft’s cabin.
  • An emotional support animal can technically be any animal, but a service animal has to be a dog or rarely miniature horses and ponies. The most common type of therapy or service animal is a dog compared to other species of animals. 
  • If you have a service dog, you can legally take it everywhere unless you’re going somewhere not required to comply with the ADA. At the same time, if you have a service animal not acting appropriately, a manager or owner can ask you to leave. For example, if your dog shows disruptive behavior, aggressive behaviors, or causes physical damage, you may be asked to remove him. 
  • A service animal can be in your workplace, no matter your company’s policy, but you may need proper documentation. 
  • With an ESA, you have to request an accommodation of your disability. Additional requirements may also be in place. 
  • Another distinction here is between an ESA and a psychiatric service animal. Psychiatric service dogs receive specialized training to do tasks for people with mental health conditions or psychiatric disabilities, such as reminding them to take their medicine or stopping self-harm behaviors.

Recent Controversies

Research shows that emotional support animals can be valuable, but some mental health experts worry they’re overused. In recent years, the number of animals used for emotional support has grown. For example, United Airlines said they had a 75% increase in ESAs flying between 2016 and 2017.

  • Airlines, as a result, have been working to change rules for the use of ESAs.
  • American Airlines has also talked about the issue of potential fake service animals and the growing requests for service animals in cabins, as have carriers like Delta. 
  • Increasingly, patients ask their health care provider for emotional support animal letters.
  • There is some concern that a lot of this is being done because then the person bringing the animal onboard a flight, for example, doesn’t have to pay, whereas they usually would. 
  • While there might be valid concerns about the overuse of support animals, especially on planes where people could have allergic reactions or feel uncomfortable, there is also the ever-present issue of non-observable disabilities. 
  • As is the case with airlines, some property owners also express concerns about the overuse of emotional support animals. People may be using the excuse to get out of paying a security deposit or damage deposits. 

Service animals and emotional support animals provide significant mental and physical health benefits to many people, but you don’t necessarily need your pet to be an ESA to experience those benefits.

Mental Health Treatment in San Diego

While there is some pushback about the potential for the overuse of emotional support animals, at least on flights, we know that there are genuine benefits of having a pet if you have a mental health condition.

It’s a big commitment to care for a pet for a lifetime, but you may find that it brings a lot of value to your life and helps as part of a larger mental health treatment plan.

We encourage you to contact the clinicians at the Mental Health Center of San Diego by calling  858-465-7722 to learn more about your options if you’re struggling with mental health symptoms or an emotional disability.