Emotional Support Animals (ESA’s) and Service Animals have many similarities, but also several very important distinctions.  I have outlined the specifics for each below, and gathered most of the information from the ADA website.  For more information, please click here.

Emotional Support Animal

  • Any type of domestic animal (dog, cat, hamster, rabbit, guinea pig, etc)
  • Provide comfort, sense of security, and companionship
  • Relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and/or certain phobias
  • Prescribed by a medical or mental health professional as part of an official treatment plan
  • With appropriate documentation, the owner may take the animal on airplanes as well as qualify for no-pet housing without being charged a pet fee.
  • Do NOT have specialized training in performing a specific task for the owner.  The very presence of the animal is enough to mitigate any troubling symptoms
  • Do NOT have public access (meaning they cannot accompany their owner into any area where animals are normally prohibited, such as restaurants).  Legally, it is up to the professional entity (the restaurant) to determine whether or not your animal may accompany you inside.
  • Must be housebroken
  • All liability falls upon the owner


Service Animal

  • Only dogs are allowed to be officially considered service animals
  • These dogs are considered working animals (they are not considered pets.)
  • The owner must have a disability and require the assistance of the service animal.  The disability may be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or related to mental health.
  • Must be trained to perform a specific task for the owner (such as opening doors, alerting the owner to an oncoming seizure, picking dropped items off the floor, etc.)
  • While professional training for the animal is highly recommended, the owner may train the animal to perform the specific and necessary task.
  • The dog has public access, meaning it can accompany the owner anywhere the owner is allowed to go, even if pets are typically not allowed.  For example, the dog may accompany the owner in the dining area of a restaurant.
  • Must be under control of the owner (whether by harness, leash, or vocal command).
  • The owner is NOT required to provide official documentation for the animal.  Establishments are only allowed to ask the owner two questions:
    1. Is this a service animal?
    2. What task is this animal trained to perform?
  • Must be housebroken
  • All liability falls upon the owner.


Lately, there has been a worsening trend of people abusing these laws, and pretending their dog is a service animal or an emotional support animal.  There are quite a few very official-looking websites that allow you to ‘register’ your animal, purchase a service vest, even get a “verified” letter by a supposed mental health professional that “prescribes” your ESA.  As someone who is both a licensed mental health professional and an animal lover (that black & white beauty in the photo is one of my two dogs), I implore you to not only educate yourself on the animal qualifications, but to also abide by the laws and guidelines.  When you abuse these laws, you are actually making it harder for those individuals with disabilities who need their service dog or ESA by their side get the respect and accommodations they deserve.


Please note that this content is for informational purposes, and not a substitute for treatment.  If you are in need of mental health treatment, please seek out a provider in your area.