ESA Letters

The Difference Between ESA and Service Animals: Key Distinctions Explained

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness about the invaluable roles that animals play in assisting individuals with disabilities. Two of the most commonly discussed assistance animals are Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Service Animals. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they actually refer to distinct types of assistance animals with different rights and responsibilities.

ESAs are animals that provide emotional support and comfort to their owners who may suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Unlike Service Animals, ESAs are not specifically trained to perform tasks or assist with physical disabilities. On the other hand, Service Animals, such as guide dogs for the blind, are specifically trained to perform tasks that help mitigate the effects of a person’s disability, providing them with greater independence in their daily lives.

In order to fully understand the difference between ESAs and Service Animals, it is essential to recognize their respective roles, legal protections, and requirements for training and certification. This article aims to provide a clear and comprehensive explanation of the key distinctions between these two vital types of assistance animals.

ESA: Definition and Purpose

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is a pet that provides emotional support and comfort to individuals diagnosed with a mental health condition or emotional disorder. Unlike service animals, ESAs are not specifically trained to perform tasks related to a person’s needs. Their purpose is to offer companionship and alleviate symptoms associated with conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others.

ESAs can be a variety of species, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds, as long as they bring emotional support and well-being to their owners. These animals do not have the same legal rights as service animals, but they do receive certain accommodations under federal laws, such as the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The FHA enables individuals with ESAs to live in housing with a ‘no pets’ policy, while the ACAA allows them to fly with their ESA in the cabin of an airplane without additional fees.

The process for obtaining an ESA involves obtaining a prescription from a licensed mental health professional stating that the individual requires the emotional support animal’s presence for their mental well-being. It is essential to note that an ESA should not be confused with a service animal, as they serve different purposes and have distinct legal rights.

Service Animals: Definition and Purpose

Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. They are usually dogs, but in some cases, miniature horses may also serve as service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals must be individually trained to perform tasks that directly relate to a person’s disability.

There are many types of service animals, each trained to assist with different disabilities. Some common examples include:

  • Guide Dogs: These dogs are trained to help individuals who are blind or visually impaired with navigation and mobility.
  • Hearing Dogs: These dogs are trained to alert people with hearing impairments to various sounds, such as alarms, doorbells, or crying babies.
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs: These dogs are trained to help people with physical disabilities by fetching items, opening and closing doors, or even helping with balance and walking.
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs: These dogs are trained to detect blood sugar levels, alerting their handlers to high or low blood sugar levels.
  • Seizure Response Dogs: These dogs are trained to assist people with epilepsy, offering support during a seizure and alerting others for help.

Service animals are not considered pets and have specific rights and protections under the ADA. They are allowed to accompany their handlers in all areas where the general public is permitted, including businesses, housing, and transportation services.

Legal Rights and Protections

Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Service Animals have distinct legal rights and protections under different federal laws in the United States. The primary laws that cover these animals are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Fair Housing Act (FHA), and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

Service Animals, primarily dogs trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, are protected under the ADA. This law allows individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their service dogs in most public places, such as restaurants, hotels, shops, and public transportation. The ADA does not grant the same level of access for ESAs, as they do not have any specific training to assist with a disability.

The FHA, on the other hand, offers protection for both Service Animals and ESAs concerning housing. This federal law prevents landlords from discriminating against a person with a disability who has a Service Animal or ESA, allowing them to live with their animals in housing that may have pet restrictions or pet fees. Both ESAs and Service Animals must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional or a medical professional.

When it comes to air travel, the ACAA allows Service Animals to travel with their handlers in the aircraft cabin without any extra fees. In addition, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) a service animal means a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  Animal species other than dogs, emotional support animals, comfort animals, companionship animals, and service animals in training are not service animals.

It’s essential for individuals with disabilities who rely on Service Animals or ESAs to understand their rights and responsibilities under these laws to avoid any legal issues and to ensure a harmonious relationship with their animals in various settings.

A woman trains her ESA labrador retriever to sit up while at the beach.

Training and Certification

Service Animals undergo extensive training whereas Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) provide a therapeutic benefit such as emotional support, comfort and/or companionship. The primary difference between the two lies in the scope of the tasks they perform for their handlers. It’s a tricky situation because we recognize that emotional support is really important, but it’s something that all dogs can provide, and it’s generalized, versus a very specific task. There’s a huge disparity between the training that is required for a dog to carry out tasks to help an individual with a disability, versus one that by their very nature, already do to provide comfort and support.

Service Animals, particularly service dogs, undergo rigorous training to perform specific tasks that directly aid their handlers in navigating daily life. These tasks include guiding the visually impaired, detecting seizures or diabetic episodes, and assisting with mobility-related activities. Some organizations provide this type of training:

  • Assistance Dogs International (ADI)
  • International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP)
  • Guide Dogs for the Blind

On the other hand, Emotional Support Animals offer emotional support and companionship to their handlers. While they may not necessarily require specialized task-training, it is essential for ESAs to be well-behaved and follow basic obedience commands. Training resources for ESAs can include:

  • Local dog trainers and obedience schools
  • Online resources and video tutorials

When it comes to certification, Service Animals do not have a specific, mandatory certification. However, reputable training organizations often provide certification documents as proof of task-training completion. Emotional Support Animals, in contrast, require a letter from a licensed mental health professional stating the need for the ESA as part of the handler’s therapy plan.

In summary, while both ESAs and Service Animals serve a vital role in their handler’s life, they receive different training and certification based on their designated responsibilities.

Public Access and Accommodations

Both Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals serve different purposes for their owners, which translates to different guidelines regarding public access and accommodations.

Service Animals, specifically trained to assist with tasks related to a person’s disability, are granted various rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These rights include:

  • Access to public establishments, such as hotels, restaurants, and stores
  • Allowance in designated no-pet zones (e.g., airplanes)
  • Freedom from discrimination in housing

Conversely, ESAs, which primarily provide emotional support and comfort, are not granted the same level of public access. ESAs are generally not permitted in public places like restaurants or hotels. However, there are exceptions under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which do provide certain rights for people with ESAs:

Fair Housing Act (FHA)Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)
ESAs are allowed in no-pet housing and cannot be discriminated against based on breed or weight restrictions.Where ESAs are permitted, an ESA can accompany their owner in cabin during air travel when proper documentation is provided.

In summary, Service Animals have extensive rights regarding public access and accommodations, while Emotional Support Animals are primarily protected within housing and air travel situations.

Traveling with ESA and Service Animals

Traveling with Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and service animals can be a different experience depending on the type of animal and the mode of transportation.

For air travel, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), airlines are required to accommodate service animals in the cabin with their handlers. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) revised its regulations in 2020, stating that airlines are no longer required to recognize ESAs as service animals. Consequently, ESAs are now treated as pets and may be subject to fees or limitations, such as size and weight restrictions.

In contrast, service animals are accommodated on all U.S. public transportation systems, including buses, trains, and subways, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ESAs do not have the same legal protection, and their allowance on public transportation is at the discretion of the transportation provider.

When planning a trip with an ESA or service animal, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the specific policies of the transportation provider and the destination’s accommodation options. Some tips for traveling with your ESA or service animal include:

  • Verify the airline or transportation provider’s policies on ESAs and service animals.
  • Ensure your animal’s documentation, such as a service animal identification card or ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional, is up-to-date and readily available.
  • Confirm that the accommodations at your destination are pet-friendly or service-animal-friendly.
  • Practice proper pet etiquette, including grooming and controlling your animal’s behavior.

By being well-prepared and knowledgeable about the regulations surrounding ESAs and service animals, you can ensure a smooth and comfortable journey for both you and your animal companion.


In summary, both Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Service Animals provide essential support to their respective individuals. However, there is a significant difference in their roles and legal protections.

ESA are primarily aimed at providing emotional support and companionship for those with mental health issues, while Service Animals are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities.

It is crucial to understand that:

  • ESA do not require specific training, whereas Service Animals do.
  • Service Animals have broader public access rights and accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • ESA, although beneficial, do not have the same level of legal protections as Service Animals.

By recognizing these distinctions, we can collectively work towards greater awareness and understanding of the importance of both Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals for individuals in need.

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