Emotional Support Vs Service Animal: What's the Difference

Thursday, September 17, 2020

While both kinds of animals serve people, emotional support animals, more commonly referred to as ESAs, and service animals are often confused. Sometimes a miniature horse can be used as a service animal. These two types of service animals are so much alike in that they can provide emotional support for those that need it, but there are many differences between the two. Understanding these differences will allow you to select and certify an animal for your needs properly. Here are some of the key differences between these two types of service animal certifications.

service animal


Some people think that emotional support animals and service dogs are the same, but these two categories serve separate tasks. A service dog, or any animal chosen for this role, is trained to perform a function for an owner with a physical, intellectual, or emotional disability. In contrast, an emotional support animal serves as more of a companion for the owner. A service animal may still be able to provide the comfort of an emotional support animal, but it has the training to complete tasks that an emotional support animal will not. 


Service dogs are usually needed more often, as they help the owner with physical tasks. With that, they are offered certain legal protections through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that, unfortunately, emotional support animals do not get. You can take a service dog almost anywhere, and they legally cannot be denied access. Unfortunately, an emotional support dog does not share the same legal protections. It's important to understand that if you have an emotional support dog, they may not be allowed into areas that a service dog will. Legal protection of an emotional support animal is limited to housing and air travel. However, there may be businesses that will allow you to bring your emotional support animal inside. It is best to check before you enter an establishment. 

According to The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, “All landlords and property managers are required to allow a service animal or Emotional Support Animal to live with their owner even in properties where pets are otherwise not allowed, and they cannot charge an additional fee.

Meaning if the landlord has a "cats only" policy, and your service animal or Emotional Support Animal is a dog, they must allow them to live with you. They are also not allowed to discriminate about animals of a specific size or breed.

According to the National Service Animal Registry, landlords and property managers must provide reasonable accommodation for your service animals. If they don't, they violate Federal Law. 

Landlords Cannot Legally:

  • Ask a tenant to pay a deposit, fee, or surcharge in exchange for having an emotional support animal, even if they require such a practice from owners who wish to obtain pets in their dwelling.
  • Require that an emotional support animal has any specific training.
  • Require the emotional support animal to wear or carry any special collar, harness, vest, emblem, or other means of identifying it as such.
  • Inquire about the extent of the disability or ask for detailed medical records for the individual requesting the emotional support animal.
  • Refuse to accommodate you and your animal because their insurance policy won't allow a species, breed, or weight. They are still subject to the law.


As these types of support animals provide different services, the certifications also differ. A service dog agency will help find a specially trained dog to assist with a person's disability. While only a specifically trained dog can be a service dog, any pet can be considered an emotional support animal. The person looking to acquire a certified animal needs to have a disability diagnosed by a doctor or mental health professional and receive a letter stating how the animal will benefit. Registration is voluntary; it's not a legal requirement. Registering your pet as an ESA, however, not only legitimizes your ESA (making him/her look official), but it also helps eliminate the hassles and confrontation you'll encounter without it. That's the purpose of the National Service Animal Registry: To make life easier for disabled persons who travel in public with emotional support animals.

Differentiating Your Support Dog

If your support dog doesn't have any identifying factors that differentiate it from any other dog, people may not recognize that it's a support animal. Most people with service dogs have a vest with special identifying factors noting that it is a service dog. While this is not a requirement, it will let people working in places you visit identify that the dog is a service dog. With that, they are less likely to try to deny you access to the business. With an emotional support animal, it is best suited that you carry your medical letter with you. This letter will provide evidence that the dog or animal is officially a support animal. For more details about public places where you can legally take your service dog, visit the National Service Animal Registry. 

Different Rules for Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

While the rules vary slightly between service animals and ESAs, there are several sites, resources, and support groups that can be reached out to, offering more clarity and support on your animals and their rights. A great resource for both tenants and landlords is Fair Housing. 

Learn about the Pros and Cons of Renting to Tenants with Pets.