Service animals, emotional support animals, therapy animals — how are they different?

June 2, 2017

Dear Cecil:

What’s the difference between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals? I know service animals can accompany their owners anywhere, but does that apply to emotional support animals and therapy animals too? Are these animals required to be licensed or registered in some way?

Cecil replies:

Americans spend a whole lot of time griping about oppressive government regulations — hell, we've got a whole political party dedicated to stripping 'em off the books. But if you say you use a service dog, guess what? That's that. No one can ask for your papers. No local government can require you to register the animal. It sounds too civilized to be true — which is why, naturally, there are folks in business selling unneeded certifications.

A service animal is an animal trained to assist a disabled person by performing specific tasks: they guide the blind, signal the hearing-impaired, pull wheelchairs, and so on. Their use is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allows anyone requiring the assistance of a service animal to bring that animal into any public accommodation without discrimination — a cabbie can't shake his head and speed off when he sees your furry companion, and that hip new restaurant can't hide you both behind a screen in the back.

The term “service animal” sounds broader than it really is; what we’re talking about here is pretty much just dogs. ADA regulations currently exclude all other creatures, except one: if a dog is a bad fit for you (due to allergies, say, or religious constraints), a miniature horse may be used instead — providing that it’s suitably housebroken, that the mesmerizing cuteness of a tiny horse won’t create a safety hazard, etc.

Of course, there are some restrictions. A service animal that flips out on duty can get you both tossed out on the street, and the ADA won’t object. A server doesn't have to bring a snack or water bowl when you're dining out with your dog. And while local governments can't compel you to register your service animal as a service animal, they can of course require licensing, vaccinations, and all the other basics of animal ownership.

Crucially, though, the law doesn’t require you to justify your service animal’s presence with documentation, or by disclosing medical specifics; all anyone can ask you is whether it’s in fact required because of a disability, and what task it’s trained to do. This means that anyone, theoretically, could claim their dog is a service animal. Presumably some level of civic responsibility, or just self-respect, prevents the sighted from pretending to be blind so they don't have to leave their dogs outside the bank.

An emotional support animal doesn’t do the same kind of clearly visible work as a service animal — it's a companion that provides therapeutic benefit for those suffering psychiatric woes. With ESAs, the major issue isn't where you’re allowed to bring them, but where they’re allowed to live. Under the Fair Housing Act, a “reasonable accommodation” must be made for folks with a physical or mental disability who need the assistance of an animal. Basically, even if I have a no-pets rule in my building, I’m still legally required to allow you to live with your ESA if you have a disability that entitles you to one; you just have to provide a note from your doctor (or social worker, or some other professional) certifying that you have a need for the animal.

While you can’t take your emotional support animal anywhere you want, the Air Carrier Access Act does allow you to bring it to the airport and onto the plane. Unlike a service animal, an ESA can also be a cat or most any other species, though since an ESA mustn’t impose an undue financial burden on the landlord by doing damage to property or requiring increased insurance, you might have a harder time setting up household with your rambunctious emotional support mongoose.

“Service animal” and “emotional support animal” are legal classifications. That’s not the case with therapy animals. These tend to be plain old pets that some institution — a hospital, a nursing home, or, increasingly, a college or university where student fretting goes into overdrive at exam time — will invite in to cheer, soothe, or otherwise distract the residents. Access to therapy animals isn’t protected by law, so whoever’s hosting them can make their own rules.

Just because hotels and movie theaters can’t ask you to show paperwork for your service animal doesn’t mean plenty of websites out there won’t be happy to send you some anyway. Certain of these simply offer free-of-charge documentation that may make your use of a service animal less hassle-ridden — surely not every maître d’ out there has gotten the relevant memo, after all. But others might charge you $60 or so for a badge, vest, or photo ID. If this doesn’t sound any more useful than those astronomic registry services that allowed you to “name” a star after your beloved grandma, well, I won’t argue. And let’s be realistic: no matter what badge or vest you put on him, people are still going to want to talk about your miniature horse.

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