Service Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals: The Difference

Have you seen someone with a service animal out in public and wondered what the difference was between them and an emotional support animal? There is a common misconception that emotional support animals and service animals are one and the same, but this just isn’t true. While there are some similarities between the two kinds of animals, they serve very different purposes.

Simply put, emotional support animals (ESA) are intended to help with mental health issues. Service animals are for physical disabilities but not specifically for mental health problems.

Overall, there’s a big difference when it comes to the function, laws, and regulations regarding service animals and emotional support animals — these differences are easy to confuse.

Thus, if you’re wondering about those differences, don’t lose sight because we’ll provide you with a clear understanding of how ESAs and service animals are different.

Before digging in, let’s start with their definition.

You Will Learn

Service Animal

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an animal that is trained to handle tasks in a way that benefits you or a member of your family who has a disability is a service animal.

Usually, it’s a dog, but they can also be other animals (like a miniature horse) if they meet certain requirements. These animals should be recognized in the psychiatric, hearing, and assistance areas. They can open doors, turn off lights and alarm systems, retrieve items, and help their owners live more independently.

Many disabilities, illnesses, or conditions that disable someone from doing everyday tasks, including going for a walk, can benefit from having a service animal.

In addition, according to ADA, a service animal should be trained specifically for your particular impairment. In short, the service animal’s training should be correlated to your particular disability. So, if you’re a person who owns a service animal that is trained for another task other than the help you need, it’s not a service animal.

Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD) defines an ESA as an animal that is able to provide companionship, reduce loneliness, and sometimes help with depression and anxiety.

These animals are not specially trained to perform a specific task but provide relief to their handlers. Also, they’re not considered service animals, so the ADA does not protect them.

What Are Their Key Differences?

Emotional support and service animals are very similar in the fact that they are both working to improve the overall health of their owner. However, how they go about it is different. Below, we emphasized their main differences.


The main difference lies in their functions. ESAs help with emotional support, and they support their owners in the sense that they provide comfort. On the other hand, a service animal assists its owner with a physical disability or sometimes psychiatric disabilities; they are trained to help their owner more directly than an ESA would.


It takes training to become a service animal. Dogs (and sometimes miniature horses) go through months of intense training before they are well equipped to help their handler — who has a disability.

Because they’re permitted access to all places, they must behave appropriately in all situations. Thus, they must also be trained to defecate or urinate in proper areas.

On the opposite, ESAs are like typical pets. They are not required to have any training to provide emotional comfort to their owners.

People Who Can Own Them

In the U.S., only those who qualify for a service dog through the ADA can obtain a service animal. The qualification requires a disability; no disability means you can’t own a service animal. Examples are walking and hearing disabilities, among others.

Meanwhile, if you’re an individual diagnosed with anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic stress, and post‑traumatic stress disorder, then you’re qualified to own an ESA.

In relation to this, your doctor must prescribe that you need an ESA; without a prescription, your animal is just considered a pet.


Service animals are covered under the ADA and are not considered pets. No extra fee should be charged for service animal access. However, the owner will be obliged to show a document for proof.

Unlike service animals, ESAs aren’t guaranteed entry to any public place. For example, they may be denied entry to a no-pet policy establishment even if they showed proof of medical letter regarding their ESA ownership.


The good thing about service animals is that the ADA fully covers and protects them. Unfortunately for ESAs, they don’t have protection, and their owner’s prescription doesn’t give them guaranteed protection under the law. While no federal laws cover ESAs, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that you can live with your ESA in a “no pets allowed” residence, but certain requirements and restrictions apply.

Animal Type

The American Disability Act (ADA) currently states that only dogs are considered service animals. However, miniature ponies are also considered to be service animals in some circumstances.

For ESAs, any animal would do as long as they can deliver emotional support to their owners. Dogs and cats are the most common in society.


Whether you have a service animal or an emotional support animal, there’s no denying that these furry friends certainly make life easier for their owners. However, knowing their differences can help you understand these animal categories and avoid tricky future situations. Plus, when we better understand the roles different animals can serve, we can respect and appreciate them.