For people who suffer from mental or emotional health conditions, emotional support animals (ESAs) are quickly becoming a popular way to ease their symptoms. As working animals with a similar role as service dogs, ESAs are often believed to hold the same rights. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t recognize ESAs as service animals and doesn’t offer them the same freedom to accompany their handler everywhere.
Like service animals, ESAs provide a great level of comfort to their handlers, but they’re not trained to perform the important tasks that service animals are expected to provide. Much of the confusion comes from not fully understanding the role that they play for people with disabilities. We hope that this guide helps to clear up some of the misinformation about the rights of your ESA.
What’s the Difference Between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals?
Many people mistakenly assume that ESAs and service animals are the same. While they have similar jobs in that both help their handlers cope with disabilities, the roles that they play are quite different.
To understand why ESAs aren’t allowed everywhere their handlers go means first understanding their duty as working animals.
More commonly referred to as service dogs, service animals are defined by the ADA as a “dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” These dogs are specially trained and qualified to perform essential tasks for their handlers.
Service dogs are protected by the ADA. Unlike ESAs, service animals are certified, trained, and licensed to perform their duty. They’re also legally allowed everywhere their handler goes, including public areas that are off limits to pets or ESAs.
Emotional Support Animals
Like service dogs, ESAs comfort their handlers and are prescribed by a licensed mental health professional. However, where service dogs are trained to perform a specific task to aid their handler, ESAs are not.
The role of an ESA is to provide comfort through their presence. They’re also not trained as extensively as service animals, although they should understand obedience commands and be well-behaved.
Unlike service animals, ESAs don’t need to be licensed or certified to do their job. They’re also not protected by the ADA, although they are covered by the Fair Housing Act. ESAs are also more likely to comfort multiple people with mental or emotional disabilities, unlike service dogs, which only work with one handler.
ESAs are also not limited to dogs — though they are the most common — and can be any domesticated animal commonly kept as pets. These include cats, rabbits, pigs, turtles, horses, and ducks.
Are Emotional Support Dogs Considered Psychiatric Service Dogs?
Since ESAs are prescribed by licensed mental health professionals to help people with mental or emotional disabilities, it can be easy to classify them as psychiatric service animals. However, there is a difference between these assistance animals.
ESAs might ease the effects of anxiety or PTSD in some people, but they’re not specifically trained for tasks related to these disabilities. While your emotional support dog might cuddle with you whenever you need it, they don’t know how to do tasks that will help you.
Psychiatric service animals are trained to perform tasks that often include preventing harm from coming to their handler due to their mental illness. Unlike ESAs, psychiatric service animals are recognized by the ADA as service animals due to their training and the support that they give their handler.
Where Can Emotional Support Animals Go?
Unlike service animals, ESAs are limited in where they can go. Since they’re not protected by the ADA like service animals are, they don’t have the same legal rights and aren’t expected to receive the same level of training or be given access to public places that don’t allow pets.
Fair Housing Act
ESAs might not be allowed in many pet-free areas, but they are protected by laws like the Fair Housing Act. This prevents housing providers from denying accommodation to people with ESAs.
Provided that you have an ESA letter to prove that your ESA is necessary for your mental and emotional health, your ESA can live with you in buildings that don’t allow pets. They’re also exempt from pet-related fees in housing that does allow pets.
There are a few exceptions, such as if the landlord deems your ESA to be dangerous, but they can’t discriminate against owners of ESAs.
Contrary to U.S. law that states that ESAs aren’t pets, most of the public places where you can take your ESA are limited to pet-friendly places. Except for housing, ESAs aren’t protected by the same laws that allow service animals to stay with their handlers.
Are Emotional Support Animals Allowed on Flights?
Until recently, ESAs were allowed on flights. The Air Carrier Access Act was revised by the United States Department of Transportation in December 2020, and the changes were made effective in January 2021. These included changing the definition of a service animal to a dog that’s trained to perform tasks to aid someone with a diagnosed disability.
This change also means that ESAs are seen as pets by most airlines and aren’t allowed in the cabin during flights. Some airlines do allow carry-on pets for a fee, but most only allow fully trained service dogs to ride with the passengers.
Can Emotional Support Animals Go Inside Restaurants or Stores?
Amid all the confusion about ESAs and service animals, the places where they’re allowed to go can get hazy. While service animals are allowed everywhere due to their protection by the ADA, ESAs are not.
You may find stores or restaurants that do allow your ESA to join you, but they’re under no legal requirement to do so. Such places also include workplaces and hotels.
If you’re not sure whether your ESA is allowed somewhere, ask before you enter. In general, if a public place doesn’t allow pets, it’s unlikely that your ESA will be welcome.
ESAs are incredibly comforting to people who have mental or emotional disabilities. They aren’t trained to perform certain tasks to aid their handlers, though, and aren’t considered to be service animals or psychiatric service dogs. This means they are not protected by the ADA or held to the same high training standards as service dogs. Therefore, many of the places where you can take a service dog are off-limits to your ESA. However, due to the Fair Housing Act, they are allowed in housing that doesn’t typically allow pets.
Featured Image Credit: Anagarcia, Shutterstock