Do you love coming home from a long day at work to a happily wagging tail? Do you enjoy snuggling with your furry friend when you feel sad or lonely? Do you consider your pet to be the best therapist you’ve ever had?

If you’re obsessed with your pet, if you buy him birthday treats, feed him only the most premier food, and dress him in silly outfits, you’re not alone. America really loves its animals, and research shows that we spend over $70 billion taking care of our pets each year.

Pet ownership continues to rise, particularly among the younger generations. And we don’t just take in animals haphazardly. A whopping 95% of pet owners consider their animal friends as members of the family.

Exploring The Benefits of Animals On Our Well-Being

You already know that your pet makes you feel happy and loved. And while most people identify that the relationship between pets and their owners is a powerful one, research also shows that there are numerous physical and emotional benefits associated with animals.

Pet owners tend to be more physically active than those without pets. This phenomenon is likely due to increased playing and walking with animals. The benefits of this are multifaceted. Increased physical activity is associated with perks like decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. It’s also associated with mental benefits including reduced stress and anxiety.

Additionally, pets can provide a sense of purpose. You have a creature dependent on you. You are responsible for their livelihood! That accountability can keep you feeling motivated and disciplined- even when life becomes challenging.

Finally, pets offer numerous advantages for cultivating healthy emotional development in children. Pets provide valuable lessons about life (the process of reproduction and birth, illness, death, and bereavement). They also teach loyalty, respect, compassion, and empathy for other living creatures.

What Are Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animal

Emotional support animals are not just pets. Emotional support animals provide a sense of safety and stability for individuals struggling with mental illnesses such as:

  • Depression
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Age-related cognitive decline
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Autism
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders

Any domestic animal, such as dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, mice, and birds, can be approved as an emotional support animal. This animal can be an existing pet, and it can also be a pet you intend to adopt for emotional stability.

Only licensed mental health professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists, or licensed therapists can prescribe the necessity for an emotional support animal. These professionals evaluate your disability and determine how the animal can reduce the severity of its associated symptoms. If they deem that you are fit for having an emotional support animal, they will write you an official letter valid for one year.

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals provide support for their owners in a variety of settings. To date, they have privileges in two environments. Just like pets, they are expected to behave appropriately without causing harm or disruption to other people or property.

Housing Privileges

Under the Fair Housing Act, property management companies and landlords cannot legally discriminate against tenants with emotional support animals. For instance, if a particular housing complex has restrictions or prohibitions against pets, these rules do not apply to such tenants.

Emotional support animals are also exempt from any breed or size limitations. Furthermore, landlords cannot legally charge pet fees or pet deposits. All long-term housing units- including college dormitories- must adhere to these laws.

However, the housing act does not apply to temporary living arrangements like hotels, motels, cruise ships, or room-share services like Airbnb. You can always contact the management company or owner to ask about your animal. Some exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis.

Learn more about ESA Letter for Housing.

Flying Privileges

Under the Air Carrier Access Act, emotional support animals may accompany flying passengers for free in the main aircraft cabin. Each airline may request documentation about your emotional support animal, and they may require advance notification about the flying animal. Likewise, they may have some restrictions on the types of animals allowed.

Typically, the animal must sit on the floor at your feet, under the seat, or on your lap. If kenneled, the animal usually needs to fit under the seat in front of you. Finally, emotional support animals cannot block aisles, sit in exit rows, or occupy entire sets on their own.

As of very recently, however, the U.S Department of Transportation has proposed a new rule that permits airlines to stop permitting emotional support animals on their flights. This rule comes in response to airline companies arguing that the current guidelines on emotional support animals are “too loose” and that many passengers have abused their privilege. Many flight attendants have commented that they have had to accommodate numerous concerns related to untrained animals, cleaning messes, and aggression and biting.

Learn more about ESA Letter for Airlines.

Other Considerations

Emotional support animals provide relief and comfort for individuals struggling with emotional disabilities. They are not obligated to perform designated tasks. Thus, they do not require specific or formal training, and they do not need to pass any tests.

Emotional support animals do not have privileges in other public establishments. For example, if a pet is not allowed in a designated location (restaurant, mall, movie theater), an emotional support animal is not permitted, either. Likewise, employers are not required to allow such animals in the workplace. In other words, beyond housing and flying, emotional support animals do not have any more rights than ordinary pets.

What Are Service Animals?

Service dog

Service animals are specifically trained to perform designated work for a person with a disability. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) lists the following criteria for service animals:

  • Only dogs are recognized as service animals
  • The dog is individually trained to perform tasks or do designated work
  • Entities must permit service dogs to accompany people with disabilities in public spaces where members of the public are permitted

According to the American Kennel Club, over 80 million Americans use service dogs to help with everyday functioning. Service animals may assist with many tasks including:

  • Helping and guiding people who are blind
  • Alerting people who are deaf
  • Assisting with pulling people in wheelchairs
  • Alerting, protecting, and assisting people with seizure disorders
  • Providing household support for people with dexterity issues
  • Offering balance for people with mobility issues
  • Barking, alerting, and leading other people to the owner during acute emergencies

While these dogs often provide comfort and emotional support to their owners, these benefits are not the primary focus. Instead, their focus lies in the duties they perform to make their owner’s life more manageable.

Service Dog Requirements

All types of dogs are eligible to become service dogs, as service dogs do not have restrictions related to breed, age, or sex. Service dogs cannot be used for treating temporary and non-chronic impairments or disabilities (i.e., broken bones, pregnancy, minor gastrointestinal distress). Furthermore, environmental conditions are not protected.

Service dogs must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered- unless these mechanisms otherwise restrict the service animal’s tasks and work. If that is the case, the individual must be able to control the dog through other methods such as signals or vocal cues.

Service dogs must be well-behaved and unobtrusive. Aggressive behavior (growling, biting, showing teeth) or unruly behavior is not acceptable. Generally speaking, service dogs should be able to exhibit the following behaviors and commands:

  • Ability to wait to be released before coming out of vehicles and waiting quietly until receiving further instructed
  • Ability to remain in a heel position when approaching buildings, crossing streets, and interacting with the public. If you stop, the dog should stop.
  • Ability to maintain a relaxed and calm attitude in all public spaces. The dog should be able to adapt to you walking in tight quarters, around crowds, and throughout different types of terrain.
  • Ability to obey commands related to sitting, leaving, and heeling.
  • Ability to maintain full control when off-leash if applicable

According to the ADA, people with disabilities have the right to train their dogs by themselves. They do not have to use a formal service dog training program.

You are not federally required to register your service dog. That said, specific cities may have registration and licensing requirements. If that is the case, your dog is subject to these local laws. In general, even if it is not mandatory, registration offers a sense of legitimacy, and it reduces the majority of the emotional hassles associated with protecting your inherent rights.

Public and Private Establishment Privileges

Under the ADA,  establishments must accommodate service animals in all areas of the facility where ordinary members of the public are permitted. This includes most establishments, but it may restrict access to hazardous areas like operating rooms or other sterile environments.

Employees are only allowed to ask two questions if the purpose of the service animal is not apparent. These two questions are:

  • Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Beyond those questions, employees cannot ask for additional details or clarification. They cannot legally request documentation, identification, or demonstration of the dog’s talents. Moreover, allergies and fears of dogs are not acceptable or valid reasons to deny access.

While service dogs are permitted in most public locations, these laws do not apply to private clubs or religious organizations/places of worship.

Housing and Flying Privileges

Service dogs enjoy the same housing and flying privileges as emotional support animals. This means that landlords and property management companies cannot discriminate against tenants with service dogs. They cannot charge pet fees or deposits, either.

If you are flying, you have the right to be accompanied by your service dog without being charged a fee. Depending on the airline’s rules, animals typically must sit or lie on the floor between your knees. Airlines may require crating for larger dogs or overcrowded flights.

Although not required by law, some airlines may request identifying vests or service leashes. For simplicity, you may want to carry an attached photo ID identifying your animal as a service dog.

Emotional Support Animal vs Service Animal Comparison Table

Comparison Service Animal Emotional Support Animal (ESA)
Legal right to be in all public places with the person they are assisting. yes no
May live with disabled owners regardless of a no-pet policy. yes yes
May accompany disabled owners in the cabin of an Airplane. yes yes
Specifically trained to assist one individual. yes no
Must have documentation identifying the disability. yes yes
Provides emotional support to a person with a psyhological disability. no yes
Provides companionship and emotional comfort to many people. no yes
Must be trained to tolerate a wide range of enviroments and people. yes no
Must wear a leash or vest identifying the animal. yes no

Final Thoughts

Both emotional support animals and service animals provide immense relief and comfort to their owners. That said, while emotional support animals support mental illness, service animals mostly support physical disabilities and impairments.

And while both animals enjoy particular privileges, service animals have fewer restrictions than emotional support animals. That’s why, if you are interested in having your pet support you, it’s essential to understand the key differences between these roles.

Nicol Arzt

Nicol Arzt LMFT

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in substance use disorders, depression and anxiety, and complex trauma. A professional content writer, she is passionate about teaching through the written word and providing dynamic mental health advocacy. Nicole lives in Southern California with her husband and son.