Not Just Semantics: The Difference Between Service, Therapy and Emotional Support Animals

posted: 12/01/17
by: Jane Harrell
Service dog

Do you know the difference between these types of service dogs?



Seizure-sniffing canines, cuddly cats and even horses are sometimes spoken of using terms like "therapy," "service" and "emotional support" animals, but not all these terms (or the rights associated with them) are created equal. Do you know the differences? Find out below, then take our quick quiz!

The simple breakdown...

  • A service animal is a dog (or sometimes a miniature horse) specifically trained to do certain major life tasks for a person with physical or severe psychiatric disabilities. This may include but isn't limited to providing:
    • Seeing eyes for the blind
    • Hearing and alerts for the deaf
    • Seizure-detection and alerts
    • Reminder to take medication or stop a certain behavior
    • Opening doors, refrigerators, carrying items, etc.

Rigorously trained to perform certain functions, these animals live with the people they assist; are certified and registered; and receive certain rights of entry to otherwise no-animals-allowed facilities.

  • A therapy animal can be any animal trained to provide affection and comfort to people in facilities such as schools, hospices, disaster areas, hospitals, nursing homes, etc. This may include but isn't limited to providing:
    • A listening ear to a child's reading program
    • A comforting nuzzle to seniors in a care facility
    • A passive purr while being pet by a hospital in-patient

Trained and certified, therapy animals and their volunteer handlers (usually their owners) are typically given entry to areas in connection with specific social programs.

  • An emotional support animal is a pet that is part of the owner's psychological treatment plan and prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. This may include but isn't limited to treatment for:
    • Depression
    • Anxiety
    • Phobias
    • Loneliness, etc

Like service animals, these pets help a specific person, but they do not go through any special training or certification. They are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, though they may receive certain housing rights in otherwise no-pets-allowed housing and access to flights on airlines (see more below).

Recognizing and working with service animals

Service animals work for the person they accompany and live with. They are typically identifiable by their harness and vest, though not all dogs will wear them as it may interfere with the major life task they perform for their handler. Service dogs are specifically trained to assist the individual handler. Depending on their training, they are often distinguished further. Some of these distinctions include guide, hearing alert, medical assist, mobility, psychiatric service animal, and seizure alert dogs.

Only working service dogs fall under protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Working service dogs are not pets, although they can be just as silly, loving and goofy when the clock stops.

Don't pet a service dog when they're working. No one comes up and pets you when you're working. At least they shouldn't.

Recognizing and working with therapy animals

Unlike working service dogs, therapy animals can be almost any species such as cats, birds, reptiles, horses, etc. Therapy animals are privately owned and screened as naturally calm, gentle, and obedient as well doing well in human group settings. They often go through extra training as well.

Therapy animals often visit facilities with people facing some type of significant life event whose current state would be improved through the companionship of the animal. However, therapy animals are used in other situations as well. Aside from making special visits to facilities to brighten spirits, therapy animals can assist physical, occupational, and mental health therapists with helping clients meet specific goals as part of treatment. Animal-assisted therapy is often used to improve social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. You can also find some facilities that have an in-house therapy animal. Staff, in treatment of patients at the facility, often use the therapy animal as a gentle way to connect.

Federal law does not legally protect therapy animals though some states have protections and rights in place for therapy animals and their handlers.

Recognizing and working with emotional support animals

Unlike regular pets, emotional support animals (ESAs) are prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to an individual as part of treatment. Any domesticated animal may qualify as an ESA. Unlike working service dogs, ESAs do not assist with a physical task such as allergen detection or hearing; rather, the animal serves to reduce the negative impact of an emotional or psychological disability under treatment including depression and anxiety.

ESAs and their handlers are legally protected under the Air Carrier Access Act and Fair Housing Amendments Act. Under these laws, the leashed ESA is allowed to fly in the cabin with the handler they help (some airlines apply restrictions to type of animal) without being charged a pet fee, and the ESA still qualifies for no-pet housing without being charged a pet fee.

Unlike service animals and therapy animals, businesses are not required by law to allow an ESA inside and there is no certification process.

Are you a working-pet wiz? Test your knowledge with our service, therapy and emotional support animals quiz!

  1. True or false: Service, therapy and emotional support animals all have to be certified

False. Service animals are certified and therapy animals must go through screening to become approved. Emotional support animals, however, do not have to receive special training or certification.

  1. True or false: While not typical, miniature horses can be considered service, therapy and emotional support animals.

True. A revision to the Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes miniature horses as potential service animal candidates. While therapy and emotional support animals can be a variety of species, the service animal arena was strictly for dogs until this change.

  1. True or false: Therapy animals must be given access to no-pets housing under the Fair Housing Act.

False. Therapy animals perform their work offsite and their owner-handlers are volunteers. Given this, they do not need to "work" in their house and so do not receive any special protections or admittance to no-pet housing. However, emotional support animals and service animals do.

Did you get all three questions right? Congratulations! Consider yourself a working-pet wiz and pass on this article to help others understand the difference between these great care-giving animals.

Jane Harrell is a writer, an editor, and the founder of AdvoCats (and Dogs, Too!)
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