featured image with text: "Emotional Support Vs Service Animal: What's the Difference"

Emotional Support Vs Service Animal: What's the Difference

By: Kristan Pennington
October 27, 2023  | 

Pets play a special role in our lives, but it can get slightly confusing when discussing emotional support animals (ESAs) and service animals. Did you know that even a tiny horse can be a service animal? Both ESAs and service animals offer emotional support, but they're not exactly twins. To find the right furry friend for you, it's essential to know their differences. So, let's journey to understand the distinctions between ESAs and service animals. We'll guide you through the key differences, helping you choose the perfect companion tailored to your needs.



It's common for folks to mix up emotional support animals (ESAs) and service dogs, but these two categories have distinct roles. Think of it this way: a service dog, or any creature wearing the service animal cape, is like a superhero in training. They've got a crucial job to do, helping owners with physical, intellectual, or emotional challenges by performing specific tasks. Conversely, an emotional support animal is more like a trusted sidekick, offering unwavering companionship. While both can provide comfort, a service animal has special skills and training to accomplish specific tasks that an emotional support animal won't tackle. So, it's a bit like comparing a superhero in training to a loyal buddy when you're exploring these two remarkable roles.

Esa dog with a blind lady


Service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs) each have distinct roles, and these roles come with different legal protections. Service dogs are like highly trained assistants for their owners, aiding with physical tasks. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides strong legal safeguards for service dogs. They have nearly universal access, meaning they can accompany their owners to most places without being denied.

On the other hand, emotional support animals don't enjoy the same legal privileges. While they provide vital emotional comfort, their access rights are limited. Legal protection of an emotional support animal is limited to housing and air travel, but businesses can decide whether to allow them inside. So, it's important to check with establishments if you plan to bring your emotional support animal along. Knowing the distinctions between these two types of assistance animals can help you navigate their different rights and access.

According to the National Service Animal Registry, the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 states that “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."

If your landlord has a policy allowing only cats, and your service animal or Emotional Support Animal is a dog, they must still permit your dog to live with you. Additionally, they cannot discriminate based on the size or breed of the animal.

Also, 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.

Esa dog

Regarding support animals, their roles are as diverse as their certifications. Service dogs, those true superheroes of the animal world, undergo intensive training to provide invaluable assistance to people with disabilities. They are carefully matched with their owners by service dog agencies, creating a special partnership.

In contrast, emotional support animals (ESAs) have a broader entry ticket. While service dogs require specialized training, ESAs can be your beloved pet, offering emotional comfort. To obtain certification for an ESA, individuals must have a diagnosed disability, as confirmed by a doctor or mental health professional. This assessment is followed by a letter describing how the animal provides comfort and support.

Registering your pet as an ESA is not a legal requirement, but it serves as a practical step. It not only lends official recognition to your furry companion but also eases the challenges you might face when traveling with them. The National Service Animal Registry aims to simplify the lives of those with disabilities who rely on ESAs in public settings, making the journey smoother and more accommodating for everyone involved.

Differentiating Your Support Dog

Ensuring people recognize your support animal is key to ensuring a smooth experience in public spaces. While service dogs often wear identifying vests, it's not a strict requirement, but it's incredibly helpful. These special vests signal to others that the dog is on official duty as a service animal, reducing the likelihood of access denial.

For emotional support animals (ESAs), carrying a medical letter is a wise move. This document proves that your animal is a support companion, ready to provide comfort and emotional assistance. It's your golden ticket to help others understand your furry friend's role.

To navigate the world of public spaces with your service dog, the ADA National Network can be a valuable resource. They offer insights into where your service dog is legally allowed, ensuring that you and your furry helper can access the assistance you need without hassle.

Rules written on a blackboard

Different Rules for Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals

In the world of support animals, knowing the rules can make all the difference in ensuring a seamless and comfortable experience. Whether you're the owner of a service dog or an ESA, there's a wealth of information on several websites, resources, and supportive communities to help you navigate the nuances of these special companions and their rights. To name, we have the Service Animal Resource HubWhat Does The Fair Housing Act Say About Emotional Support Animals?, and Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA.

One standout resource that's incredibly useful for both tenants and landlords is Fair Housing. It provides essential information on the rights and responsibilities of individuals when it comes to supporting animals in housing situations. So, if you're ever in doubt or need some clarity, remember, you're not alone—there are resources and communities ready to lend a hand in making your life with your beloved support animal all the more enjoyable.

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

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