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The Difference Between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog (and Why That's Important)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While there are many ways to improve mental health such as going to therapy, self-care, and medication if necessary, one option that is often misunderstood is the importance of animals, specifically emotional support animals (ESAs), to our mental health.

What is an emotional support animal?

First, an ESA is not the same thing as a service dog. Service dogs undergo specific training and must perform a specific task for their handler. Service dogs are allowed in all areas in which the public is generally allowed. Service dogs are not “pets.”

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are not traditional “pets” in the sense that they are considered more to be an assistive aid such as a wheelchair. They are not required to be a dog. ESAs do not require specific training and are not allowed in public. The only “task” an ESA needs to have is to provide emotional support for the person with a disability.

Someone may have an emotional support animal if they have a prescription from a therapist or physician and meets the criteria for being a person with a disability. While I personally believe animals can help anyone, unfortunately, the ease of obtaining a physician’s order for an ESA allows people to abuse the system such as people claiming their pets as ESAs so they wouldn’t have to pay for their animals to travel.

The criteria for being considered disabled are, “(1) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as walking, seeing, working, learning, washing, dressing, etc.); (2) a record of having such an impairment; or (3) being regarded as having such an impairment.”

In the US, having an ESA is covered as a reasonable accommodation under the 1988 Fair Housing Act. This means that a landlord must allow the ESA even when they have a no pet policy, and they are not allowed to charge a fee for an ESA.

Once again, ESAs are not service dogs. It is important to make note of this because taking an ESA in public is generally not allowed and could interfere with the work of a service dog. And I can’t emphasize that point enough. ESAs are not service dogs.

What is a service dog?

If a person needs assistance out in public, specifically trained service dogs may be an option to assist with all types of disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs are an option for those struggling with their mental health who also need assistance in public. Service dogs must be trained to perform one or more tasks to assist a person with a disability, not just provide companionship.

For me, my emotional support cat, Kai, has been a lifesaver. My cat creates a routine that requires me to get up and move about during the day. Kai is the reason I wake up in the morning, and the only reason I’ve stayed alive during many of my worst moments in the six months that I’ve had him. Kai cuddles up with me during virtual therapy and makes me laugh when we play together. I can’t imagine having him live with anyone else, so I know I must be here for him. On the days I can’t stay alive for myself, I stay alive for Kai.

ESAs can be life-changing and lifesaving. They provide unconditional love and support in ways other humans sometimes are not able to provide. My emotional support cat makes sure I’m feline fine and staying paw-sitive.

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