Emotional Support Animal Vs. Service Animal: Learn More!

Emotional Support Animal Vs. Service Animal: What Are The Differences?

Updated on April 12, 2022
Written by ESA Pet Staff

fact checked by Esa Pet Staff

It is common to find people using the terms “service animal” and “emotional support animal” interchangeably.

From a broader perspective, you may think of them as being service animals. However, a service dog and an emotional support animal have distinct roles and qualifications.

Knowing the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal is key in helping you select and certify one that will suit your needs.

In this piece, we dig deep into some of the key differences between an emotional support animal and a service animal. Keep reading to learn more.

Service Animal laying down waiting to travel

Differences by Definition: Emotional Support Animal Vs. Service Animal

According to the disabilities act, a service animal refers to any animal which has the training to work or perform certain tasks that are beneficial to the owner. The definition of a service animal is in Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA. 

Usually, the owners of service animals are persons living with some form of disability. These include mental, physical, psychiatric, intellectual, or sensory disabilities.

Some of the tasks that the service animal may perform to the owner’s benefit include alerting the owner to a sound and pressing an elevator button. The dogs may also pick up dropped items and pull a wheelchair, among other things.

The Americans with Disabilities Act does not consider emotional support animals, therapy dogs, and comfort animals as service animals. Other types of animals, domestic or wild, are also not service animals according to the definition present in the Act.

The service pets work must directly relate to the disability of the owner. Unlike the case of an emotional support animal, a doctor’s note stating that the bearer has a disability is not sufficient to qualify a pet as a service animal.

Some of the examples of animals that suit the definition of service animals in the Americans with Disabilities Act include the following:

Hearing or Signal Dogs

These are individually trained dogs that can alert a person with hearing problems when a sound rings or there is a knock on the door.

Seeing or Guide Dogs 

The work of these dogs is to work as a travel tool for owners who are blind or suffer from significant visual impairment.

Seizure Response Dogs

This is a type of service animal with the training to help handlers with a seizure disorder. The dog will serve the person depending on the needs at the moment.

For example, the dog may stand guard over the person during a seizure, or they may go and get help for the handler during such episodes.

Under this category, you can find service animals that can predict a seizure in advance and then warn the handler to take a seat or find a safe place before the seizure occurs.

Psychiatric Service Dogs

Psychiatric service animals perform tasks that help their owners to identify the onset of a psychiatric episode. 

They also help to reduce the effects of such episodes.

Some of the things that psychiatric service animals may perform include turning on the lights for owners suffering from conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder.

Psychiatric service animals can also remind the owner to take their medication, and help disoriented owners from potential dangers.

Additionally, they can provide safety checks for the owner. 

Ssig or Behavioral Distraction Dogs (SSigDOG)

These refer to social signal dogs and sensory signal dogs. They are special service animals that can assist handlers with autism.

With the dog’s training, these pets can alert the handler to certain distracting repetitive movements that are common with persons suffering from autism. As such, the handler will get alerts to stop the movements and to remain calm.

It is worth noting the Disabilities Act states that service animals can only be dogs and they must receive service dog training. In the absence of service dog training, they may not qualify as such under the law.

However, there are exemptions and few instances when persons living with disabilities may use miniature horses. Such horses must receive individual training to perform certain tasks for owners living with various forms of disabilities.

Why Service Animals Are Different From Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals are animals that have an emotional connection with their handler or owner. Whereas service animals must undergo some form of training before they can serve their handlers as service animals, emotional support animals don’t have to be trained.

The only qualification you need to have them is a prescription from a licensed mental health professional.

If you are suffering from a disabling mental illness, a mental health expert such as a psychologist may determine that having an animal around may be good for your mental health.

Consequently, they may go ahead and prescribe to you an emotional support animal to help you cope.

Normal companion animals such as dogs, cats and other domestic species, can be wonderful emotional support animals, as they ease anxiety or help you regain your focus in life.

How to Get a Service Dog

There are very many benefits psychiatric service dogs can bring to their handlers. But before you can enjoy any of the benefits, you must know how to get one.

Funnily, qualifying for a service dog is very easy. However, getting a service dog that will suit your needs is the real problem.

But, now that you are here, you don’t have anything to worry about. If you use the brief guide below, you will have no problem getting a service dog for your needs.

Contact your healthcare provider

Before you think about getting an individually trained service dog, you need to have proper documentation from your healthcare provider. The documentation should state that you are undergoing treatment for a psychiatric or an emotional disorder.

Or you have a disability that may require the assistance of an animal as one or part of the therapies.

Usually, a qualified healthcare professional will help you to determine your needs for a service animal. 

Some of the conditions that may necessitate the need to have one include autism, scoliosis, and epilepsy. Others are post traumatic stress disorder, loss of hearing, loss of sight, and multiple sclerosis among others.

Choose the best breed for you

Based on the consultation with the healthcare provider, the service dog breed or therapy dogs you get will depend on the severity of the condition.

However, there are common service dog breeds that you can find from places such as American Kennel Club. American Kennel Club happens to be one of the best resources for dog breeds in general.

You should remember that any dog breed can be a service dog. If you already have a dog at home, it can be specifically trained to be a service dog. As such, you don’t have to go only by the common service dog breeds. You can find many of these in places such as the American Kennel Club.

Golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, are, however, some of the best breeds to consider training for specific tasks and to serve as service dogs.

Choose your service dog provider

Whether you are looking for golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers to be your psychiatrist service dogs, it is always a good idea to find a reliable service dog provider.

The service dog provider will make the work easier for you. This is because they will take off the burden of you having to train your own service dog.

The work of these providers is to train service dogs. After training the service animals, they avail them for adoption to interested individuals. You will also be happy to learn that the agencies can also train a dog that you already own to become a service dog.

Just bear in mind that it may take several months or years to train a dog you already own so that it can serve you properly as a service dog.

Get all the necessary supplies for your service dog

Once you have your service dog provider, the next step is to get all the necessary supplies you need to bring the pup home.

Psychiatric service dogs or the common service dog breeds will have different requirements compared to the normal companion animals.

With the specific dog already in mind, go and gather all the relevant essential materials. Don’t forget about the bed, food, leash, treats, and toys.

Get to bond with your new service dog

Your new service dog, such as a hearing dog, is not your ordinary companion dog. He is also a friend. To ensure you get going on the right footing, plan a day to play and bond with them.

It is important that you build trust with each other. Getting it right during your early days of companionship will pay off in a huge way in the long run.

Learn more about how much is a service dog in our dedicated article.

How to Get an Emotional Support Animal

As noted earlier, getting an emotional support animal is easier in comparison to getting service animals or service dogs. To get an emotional support animal, you need to have a prescription from a licensed mental health professional.

This prescription is usually in the form of a letter indicating that you have a mental health condition. It also explains that having an animal around you may help you to deal with the condition.

Evidently, an emotional support animal and a service dog may appear to be directly related. However, what they do and the process of getting one are worlds apart.

You can also get the emotional support animal letter online. With the online route, you will have to take a short survey to determine your suitability for an emotional support animal. If you feel you need an ESA letter, but you don’t want to go through the trouble of locating a licensed therapist, then you can get it from us at ESA PET.

After taking the survey, if you are a suitable candidate for emotional support dogs, your application will undergo review by a licensed mental health professional.

Should they determine that you have a genuine need for companion animals or emotional support animal, they will go ahead and present you with the emotional support letter.

You don’t need any special training for emotional support animals.

This is unlike service animals that must receive some training to perform specific tasks, lest you risk running into problems with the state or the local laws for having untrained service animals.

Flying Emotional Support Dog inside an airplane

Flying with Service Dogs vs flying with Emotional Support Animals

For qualified individuals with a disability, most airlines will let you into the cabin with a service animal. Usually, you can travel with a maximum of two service dogs per trip. The regulations regarding this are present in the air carrier access act.

While traveling with your service dog, you will have to fill out certain forms from the Department of Transportation prior to your travel.

You can complete and submit the forms electronically and save them to your reservation after booking your flight.

Some of the information you must have to successfully complete these forms include the weight of your service animals and the breed of the service animal. You will also need vaccination records and your pet’s vet information.

After boarding the plane, you will sit the dog on the floor right in front of your seat.

You have to ensure that you don’t extend into the aisle. The dog must also not access the space of the adjacent travelers. It may also be a good idea to use an approved in-cabin kennel for smaller dogs.

Flying with Emotional Support Animal

Things change a bit differently when it comes to flying with emotional support dogs.

Sadly, most major airlines, including Delta and American Airlines, have banned emotional support animals from their flights.

This major change is due to complaints that many travelers were coming with poorly trained pets. 

Some travelers were also using the readily available emotional support animal letters to fly their pets for free. If you have to fly with your pet as a therapy dog, confirm if this is okay with the airline.

Also, check out if they have any additional requirements that you must submit before you fly with your pet.


If you have a disability, emotional or physical, animal support may go a long way in helping you cope with your condition.

You should find it easy to tell whether you need a service animal or a therapy dog with the information above. The choice of either depends on your specific circumstances.

If you are still unsure about going for psychiatric service dogs or a gentle cat as an emotional support dog, get in touch with us for more help.


What is the purpose of an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animal provides support and companionship to handlers with some form of disability. They help in alleviating some aspects of the disability.

What are some of the examples of emotional support animals?

Examples of emotional support animals include dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, ferrets, and hedgehogs.

How do you get an emotional support animal?

To get an emotional support animal, you must have a prescription from a licensed mental health professional. After evaluating you, the professional will give you a letter indicating that you have a mental health condition and that a pet would help you cope with it.