Service, emotional support and therapy animals – what’s the difference?

By: Mary Christine Kane

In recent years there has been more widespread acceptance of the role the human-animal bond can play in our health and healing. Pets can help with our physical health, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing stress, as well as with emotional health such as improving depression, decreasing loneliness and much more.

Because of these and other findings, there are recognized categories for therapeutic animals and more legal protections for people with disabilities and their animal friends: service, emotional support, and therapy animals. But what’s the difference?

Service animals. These are working dogs that have been trained to perform a service or task directly related to a person’s disability. They live with the person they help. Examples include guide dogs for people with visual impairments and hearing dogs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Service animals can also be trained to alert handlers about oncoming seizures, diabetic spikes, detecting dangerous allergens and other tasks.

Although often licensed, they are not always. In the United States, in rare cases, miniature horses can also be service animals.

It was just recently, under the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) that service animals have been allowed into many public spaces. Before then, only dogs assisting people with visual disabilities had legal protections.

Emotional support animals or ESAs. ESAs, also called assistance animals, are the most common type of support friend. They live as pets with their guardians and unlike service animals, they are often not trained.

ESAs provide companionship and emotional support for people with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health and emotional disorders. A wide range of animals are considered ESAs, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals and horses.

Some ESA animals are allowed to live with owners in housing which has “no pets” policies and landlords must waive pet fees. ESAs may also be allowed into the workplace. Full requirements can be found on the Minnesota Department of Human Rights webpage.

Therapy animals. This broad category of animal friends may also be specially trained for therapeutic tasks, but not always. They may just be friendly and mild-mannered.

These animals live and work with handlers and are an integral part of many therapeutic settings such as hospitals, nursing homes and disaster relief environments, providing comfort and easing stress.

They may also participate in reading programs where children read to them to improve literacy skills. Therapy animals can be any species and many are registered as service animals.

Interested in adopting an ESA? If you are interested in finding an emotional support pet, Ruff Start has many animals in need. View adoptable pets.