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What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

emotional support animals

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Pet Support: The Role and Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

Animals have been known to take away our worries once we get home from work and we experience the unconditional love they give us. Whether it’s a dog, cat or other pet, an animal companion has a positive effect on human health in regard to stress levels, blood pressure, heart rate and mood boosting. Dogs are often the most common emotional support animals (ESA) seen in public, on airplanes and even at offices. Whatever the breed, the benefits of having a pet tag along with you throughout your day are endless.

The Difference Between Service Animals, Therapy Animals and Emotional Support Animals

While many people see emotional support dogs, therapy dogs and service dogs as the same thing, they are actually quite different. When it comes to their rights under the law, emotional support animals, therapy animals and service animals are defined differently and have different privileges in public spaces.

Service Animal

A service animal has the most rights and privileges under the law. They are allowed in all public spaces, including restaurants, grocery stores and hospitals, except where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as a dog who has been trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The animal’s task or job must aid with their owner’s specifically disability. Simply having a calming presence does not qualify as a task or job.

The ADA does not require service animals to be certified. In situations where it is not obvious that the dog is a service animal, staff at businesses and other public places may ask only two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Service animals enable their owners to have a greater degree of freedom and to feel like they are the caretaker instead of the one being cared for.

Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal is defined as a companion animal that provides their owner with a therapeutic benefit or emotional support. A mental health physician or medical doctor for a patient diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, depression or other mental health disorder may prescribe an emotional support animal to alleviate symptoms.

Unlike a service animal, emotional support dogs are not required to undergo any specialized training when it comes to aiding their owner with their disability.  They may, however, be allowed into housing that has pet restrictions in place. But they are not allowed in restaurants or stores.

Therapy Animal

A therapy animal is defined as an animal that has undergone training to provide comfort and affection to people. They are trained to help anyone they encounter, whereas an ESA or service animal only provides support to once specific person.

Therapy animals are typically used in hospitals, retirement homes, schools and disaster relief zones. However, their rights under the law are the same as your pet’s rights at home. They are not included under the Americans with Disability Act, so their ability to enter public spaces is entirely dependent on the discretion of the property owner or authority in charge.

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals

From mental health professionals to primary care physicians, emotional support dogs are given praise for the positivity they bring to the life of their patients.

“I am a strong advocate for emotional support animals, as I have seen, up close, the incredible positive impact they can have on people who struggle with mental illness,” says Dr. Tanisha M. Ranger, licensed psychologist and owner at Insight to Action LLC, which provides therapy and psychological services in the Las Vegas area.

“Emotional support animals offer companionship for people who often feel very isolated,” Dr. Ranger continues. “They have a calming effect for people who struggle to manage anxiety. They are often able to sense when their owners are in need of attention (this is especially the case with dogs and cats), almost always able to snap them out of negative mood states.”

Dogs in particular give otherwise isolated people a reason to leave the house and meet other people, Dr. Ranger says. For individuals with PTSD, an emotional support dog can help to decrease their agitation, offering a sense of security and protection. Many health professionals who understand the camaraderie and valuable responsibility it can give people in need encourage ESA pet support.

Animals bring joy, meaning and friendship to our lives. The sole act of petting them promotes health and de-stressing in a world bombarded with distraction and chaos. An emotional support animal is just another tool that allows people to manage their mental health. Sometimes taking on life’s many journeys with your fur baby is better than walking the road alone.



Leah McCormack is a New England native and dog lover. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City with her bachelor’s degree and started her animal care business, Winni Pups. Her published articles and features can be found in The Boston Globe, The EveryGirl, The Improper Bostonian, Mane Addicts, WGSN and Chewy!