Emotional Support vs. Service Animals

There are various working dog designations.

by Michaela Gardner

One of today’s most popular “health crazes” has nothing to do with juice cleanses or the latest product intended to get rid of acne overnight. It actually doesn’t have anything to do with physical health at all, but mental health, and that is the explosive popularity of Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). While recognizing the legitimacy of using animals to help treat mental illness is a victory in itself, misunderstandings of the term “emotional support animal” have given rise to an entirely new issue. On one hand, there are people out there taking advantage of the system and faking mental illnesses in order to gain certain privileges, or people who act as though their ESA has the same rights as service animals. On the other, people that have a genuine need for emotional service animals are being taken advantage of due to a lack of accurate, widespread information on the matter.

In order to set the record straight, it's important to understand the definitions of both emotional support animals and service animals. Service animals are described by the Americans with Disabilities Act as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” They are trained to assist the visually-impaired to safely navigate the world, or aid the physically-handicapped with day-to-day chores. ESAs are pets that have received no special training, and they do not perform and tasks or work for their owners—they have been prescribed to their owner by a mental health professional because their presence helps alleviate symptoms of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.

There are only two specific areas in which people with ESAs are given rights over people with other pets. With proof from a mental health professional, people with an ESA cannot be denied housing or forced to pay a pet fee. Breed bans and size limitations may also be disregarded, according to the Fair Housing Act. When it comes to air travel, the Air Carrier Access Act allows emotional support animals to travel in the cabin of an airplane with their owner, like a service animal would. The intent of this law is to ease anxieties for those with flying phobias.

Based on these specific laws pertaining to emotional support animals, it’s easy to see how the lines between emotional support and service animals can be blurry to some people. One of the biggest issues for those with emotional support animals is the plethora of internet scams claiming that they must pay fees, many up to $100, in order to register their pet. These websites then typically provide a vest and ID badge intended to prove the validity of the ESA. In reality, the only validation necessary for ESAs is a signed letter from a mental health professional. There are no fees involved in obtaining an official status for an emotional support animal.

On the flip side, many people take advantage of the lack of proper information about the differences between emotional support and service animals, behaving as though they both possess the same rights. This epidemic continues to spread because laws and regulations are unable to keep up with the rapid increase in the use of ESAs. Until recently, there was no need for expanded legislation regarding service animals, but between the misleading information about ESAs and people just flat out lying about their pets being a service animal, many are calling for stricter laws and regulations for service animals. Those that fake the use of a service animal and have pets that misbehave in public give true service animals a bad reputation, causing more grief for people that truly require their assistance. A difficult aspect of laws about service animals is that it is illegal for employees or business owners to question the purpose or validity of a service animal, making it almost impossible to do anything when an animal is suspected to be a fake service animal.

The most important step that currently needs to be taken in sorting this issue out is the dissemination of accurate information about the differences between emotional support and service animals. More thorough research needs to be done by those considering pursuing the help of an emotional support animal, and society as a whole needs to understand the importance of service animals and the negative impact that fake or improperly-trained service animals can have on those that have gone through the proper time, training and channels in order to gain their rights.