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Emotional Support Animal vs Service Animal: 3 Things to Know

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

One way people can support their emotional needs is a relationship with a pet, but does that mean you have an emotional support animal?


There is plenty of evidence that pets can be beneficial to humans. See this article by the CDC. Evidence shows that pets can improve physical health, mental health, social interaction, and responsibility to something outside yourself. They can also be of service to someone with a disability. Given this, it might seems that all homes, apartments, etc, should allow pets. However, pets also damage things. Pets have accidents, and people are not perfect either in caring for their pets.

Given that pet fees are high in rental property and high when flying on an airplane, people who deeply love their pets, apply to have their pet "certified" as an emotional support animal or service animal. Below I will discuss the difference between the two "certifications", the way to secure either "certification", and some other things to consider.

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The difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal

An emotional support animal is an animal that provides emotional support; they don't have to be trained in any way. They can just be an animal that you sleep with, or hold, that comforts you. A lot of pets do this for their owner. However, in order to qualify for a letter or certification that your pet is an emotional support animal (ESA), you have to have an emotional disability. The letter or certification is for you, the person, and is only good for a year. It is possible that you do not qualify the next year, as your disability could be temporary. An example could be in a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic where you are working from home, isolated, lose one or more family members to COVID, and you have a breakdown or a depression that sets in. Your cat is the only thing that keeps you from staying in bed all day. Another example is that a person could live with a chronic emotional disability, like schizophrenia, and their animal(s) is an intervention that helps them feel safe enough to go out of the house.

In either of these cases or a number of other situations, a doctor or mental health provider has to "certify" that you, the person, have a mental health or emotional disability that interferes with your daily functioning. And, they have to certify that the animal is a helpful intervention to mitigate that interference. For example, a veteran from Afghanistan could have PTSD, and often cannot sleep. This person gets a dog, and they realize they can sleep better. Their doctor or therapist can write a letter stating that this person has a mental health disability that interferes with daily functioning, and that the animal is needed as an emotional support animal (ESA). The animal is NOT trained to do a specific task. They are warm, caring animals that bring comfort and bring a presence someone to who needs it. People find reasons to get out of bed, go to bed, take a walk, all due to caring for this pet and what the pet brings to the relationship.

To have a pet certified as a service animal, the animal has to go to class/training and has to learn a skill and a certain behavior. Police dogs are trained to do a certain task. People who are legally blind may have a dog trained to "walk" the person. Dogs, for example, can be trained to be emotional support, in that they are calm, lay still, don't bark, etc. These dogs can be taken to hospitals to calm people who are sick and in the hospital. If an animal is a trained service animal, the animal will have papers from the establishment that trained the animal. This is not a quick process, and often takes place when the animal is young and is very trainable. The owner may or may not have a disability; this depends on what the dog or pet is trained to do.

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How to secure either of these certifications

To secure a letter stating you have an emotional disability and an ESA is recommended, you have to have a provider do this. It could be your primary care doctor or your therapist. There are also online companies that will match you with a therapist so you can see if you qualify. Just do a search for emotional support animal letter and there are plenty online companies out there. In most cases (even at your regular doctor) you can expect to pay a fee. Online companies likely charge more than your own provider, because the company and the therapist they match you with both need to be paid. Also, there are many providers who just don't want to write this letter, so they prefer you use the online services.

To have your animal, say your dog, trained to be a service animal, you will need to do a local search for service animal training program. This cannot be accomplished with an online service.

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Things to consider

There are many people who look at someone and see a "service animal", and the person 'looks normal' to them, so they roll their eyes. I would highly encourage you to NOT judge someone and their state of mental health based on how they 'look' to you. Having said that, I have no doubt there are people who "get away with" lying to get an ESA. There are also people who "get away with" things all the time that involve lying, cheating and stealing. That does not mean most people are lying.

I will say, if you do not have a disability, but you just do not want to pay the pet fee, or you want a pet, but there are no pets allowed where you live, you need to consider your options. Make a plan to move to a place that allows pets, or save up and pay the pet fee. It may take time, but you'll be okay if you have to wait to reach your pet goal. Yes, these pets help you emotionally; that's why most people have pets. You don't need a person with a master's degree or higher to tell you that, but trying to be certified as emotionally disabled may not be your best option.

If you or someone you know would like a therapist for your emotional and mental health needs, please contact us via this website or refer to my first blog in this topic.

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If you are having a mental health crisis, please call a local or national crisis line. NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE: 1-800-273-8255.

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