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Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal

Updated: May 12, 2022

The use of emotional support animals (ESA)s are on the rise. Did you know that there are limited places to get a doctor’s letter stating that you require an ESA? While you can go online and search for a letter, there are many websites that may be scams. Medical doctors and mental health professionals each make their own choice on whether or not to write ESA letters for clients. This has to do with limited research supporting their use, although research continues to grow in this area. There are limited instances in which a mental health diagnosis may require a service animal. For example, if a dog is trained to detect an oncoming anxiety or panic attack and take action to reduce these symptoms, this would qualify as a ‘need.’ It is important to note that getting a letter for an ESA or service animal is equivalent to the determination of having a stated disability. This is an important consideration for individuals who are considering getting an ESA. Other important areas for your consideration are listed below in this quick reference to ESA and service animals. Below you will also see information for the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.

What is an Emotional Support Animal or ESA?

There is conflicting information online about ESA details.

  • states that an ESA: help individuals with emotional disabilities such as anxiety or depression by providing comfort and support. Any (although usually dogs) animal can be an emotional support animal. Federal law does not require these animals to have any specific training and you do not have to be physically disabled to have an emotional support animal.

Disabilities covered:

• Anxiety • Depression • Bipolar/mood disorders • Panic attacks • Stress • PTSD • Personality disorders • Fear/phobias

• Other emotional/psychological conditions

  • There are 2 questions that businesses are legally allowed to ask you if you have an ESA or service animal.

    • The Department of Justice offers this guidance for businesses: “When it is not obvious what service an animal provides; only limited inquiries are allowed. Staff may ask two questions:

(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability

(2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.

  • The person seeking the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship). The animal is viewed as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA or FHAct) to those housing communities that have a "no pets" rule.

  • What is the difference between registering your ESA online and getting a doctor’s letter:

There are differences among states. Overall, a doctor’s letter is needed to waive airline fees for pets while online registration is not guaranteed to work in many instances. With a doctor’s letter or documentation, the animal is allowed in all housing regardless of pet policy, with any pet deposit, or pet rent being waived. Although, the animal should have “good social skills” if taken in public places.

Note that some online websites offer a doctor’s note for a fee, beware of potential scams.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from offers the following guidance:

  • What is a service animal?

    • Under the ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability.

  • Are emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals considered service animals under the ADA?

    • No. These terms are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

  • If someone's dog calms them when having an anxiety attack, does this qualify it as a service animal?

    • It depends. The ADA makes a distinction between psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. If the dog has been trained to sense that an anxiety attack is about to happen and take a specific action to help avoid the attack or lessen its impact, that would qualify as a service animal. However, if the dog's mere presence provides comfort, that would not be considered a service animal under the ADA.

  • Does the ADA require service animals to be professionally trained?

    • No. People with disabilities have the right to train the dog themselves and are not required to use a professional service dog training program.

  • What questions can a covered entity's employees ask to determine if a dog is a service animal?

    • In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff may ask only two specific questions: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability? and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person's disability.

  • Do service animals have to wear a vest or patch or special harness identifying them as service animals?

    • No. The ADA does not require service animals to wear a vest, ID tag, or specific harness

Research has found ESAs helpful for PTSD, Autism, Dementia, and victimization and psychological wellbeing among sexual and gender minority emerging adults.

Getting a letter from a mental health professional, a nurse practitioner, or other medical professional constitutes a determination of a disability. Be sure this is something you are seeking prior to requesting a letter. Based on the limited amount of research in this area, not all medical or mental health professionals will provide documentation for ESAs.

Below are some helpful websites for more information:

I hope this information has been helpful! Have a great day!

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