Ask a Vet | What to know about service, emotional support, assistance or therapy animals

With people attempting to bring “support” peacocks, ducks and pigs on airline flights, it brings to question what exactly is a service animal? There are specific differences between the titles: service, emotional support, assistance and therapy animals. By knowing the difference between these roles, you will know what to expect from these animals and how these animals should be treated.

A service animal, according to the Americans with Disability Act (, is a dog or miniature horse trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability. The work performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Other species of animals cannot be considered service animals. A service animal is considered a working animal and not a pet. Examples of service animal’s roles include guide dogs for the visually impaired, dogs trained to detect changes in blood sugar levels for diabetics or psychiatric service dogs (not the same as an emotional support animal).

Service animals can by trained by anyone, including yourself. Private businesses that serve the public are required by law to allow service animals on the premises wherever the general public is allowed. Service animals may be recognized by the special harnesses, vests or collars they wear. However, this not required by law. Some service animals are licensed or certified and have identification papers. Some are not. A business owner may ask a person with a service animal if the animal is required due to a disability, but they may NOT ask to see certification papers proving this training.

Most of the time service animals are on a leash or harnessed. However, this is not required if it interferes with the service animal’s work or the person’s disability. Service animals should know basic commands like sit, stay, come and heel. The service animals should also be house broken, this includes miniature horses. Service animal showing signs of aggression or acting out of control can be excluded from public places if they are posing a threat to the safety of others.

It is important to remember some important service animal laws. First, service animals have to be allowed into businesses where the general public is allowed. Second, it is illegal to ask someone about their disability, though you can ask if the service animal is required due to a disability or what tasks the service animal is able to perform to assist the person’s disability. Third, it is illegal for someone to pretend to be disabled to gain access to a business with an animal. Finally, it is illegal for someone to present their pet is a service animal in order to gain access to a business with an animal.

Though certification is not required by law, if you have a service animal it can be helpful to get documentation from your service dog registration organization for travel purposes or if you are questioned by a business.

An emotional support animal (ESA), may be an animal of any species, that provides disability-relieving support to a person. Training is not required for this title. A qualified physician, psychiatrist or other mental health professional helps to determine the role an ESA plays for a person based upon a disability-related need. However, ESAs do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. This means they are NOT allowed access to public places like service animals. ESA owners may be permitted certain reasonable accommodations in housing situations under the Fair Housing Act. The Air Carrier Access Act provides specific allowances for ESAs traveling on airline, though ESAs should be public access trained for these flight accommodations. Documentation is also required for airline travel.

After the attempts of people to bring various species of ESA’s on airline flights, whether for free animal airline travel, media attention or actual emotional support, airlines are cracking down on what animals can fill the role of ESA, at least on an airline flight. Be ready to provide documentation for the person in need from a mental health professional and health documentation for the animal from a veterinarian. Be prepared for rules like, no hooves, tusks or feathers. Make sure the animal is not too large. They must be able to sit at your feet in a plane or on your lap. They must be well-behaved. Call your airline carrier at least 48 hours in advance to make sure you comply; there are many airlines that won’t let your support ferret or support spider on board.

An assistance animal is “Any animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability,” as defined by the ADA. This could be either a service animal or an ESA and is a generic term.

A therapy animal is completely different from a service animal or an ESA. Therapy animals are trained to provide comfort and affection to people in retirement homes, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and many more situations. They do not have to be trained to perform specific tasks like service animals.

Though therapy animals do not have to perform specific tasks like service animals, it is still important that they are trained in basic obedience commands and are socialized to new places, people and things in their environment.

Furthermore, if you are interested in having your dog become a certified therapy dog, consider the following training options listed below through the American Kennel Club ( where your animal can earn the AKC Therapy Dog title.
1. Be certified by a therapy dog organization that is recognized by the AKC
2. Perform the required number of visits:

  • AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished (THDD) – 400 visits
  • AKC Therapy Dog Excellent (THDX) – 200 visits
  • AKC Therapy Dog Advanced (THDA) – 100 visits
  • AKC Therapy Dog (THD) – 50 visits
  • AKC Therapy Dog Novice (THDN) – 10 visits

3. Dog must be registered with AKC (both purebred and mixed breed dogs are eligible)

All of these animals play an important role for their owners. However, not all rules apply to each group. If we as a society understand the differences between these important roles, we can further help the people who are being helped by these animals.

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