Psychiatric Service Animal vs. ESA

patient cuddling dog

Whether you’re a dog person or a cat person (or maybe even a parrot person), there’s no denying the special role of animals that help us live with our disabilities. From blindness to psychological support, our furry friends have shown us time and time again that they have an impressive ability to guide us through life — figuratively or literally.

It’s well-documented that animals can help us improve our mental health, so it shouldn’t be surprising that many people want a “pet” for this purpose. But it’s the twenty-first century — there are plenty of hoops to jump through and regulations to comply with before you can organize and register your animal.

One of the confusions you’re likely to encounter is the difference between a psychiatric service animal (PSA) and an emotional support animal (ESA). The two titles might sound similar, but they have vastly different rights, roles, and regulations. We’ll cover all that and more below.

What is a Psychiatric Service Animal?

Before we get into the finer details of what makes these two animal classifications so different, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what ESAs and PSAs actually are.

A psychiatric service animal is an animal trained to help people with a vast array of mental illnesses or learning disabilities. Like service dogs for the blind or people with physical disabilities, they’re trained to help their owners carry out everyday tasks. As we’ll soon see, they also have similar rights to these service dogs.

You may also hear them referred to as psychiatric service dogs (PSD) since they’re almost always dogs.

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal gives emotional and therapeutic support to its owners, helping them to live with emotional distress, anxiety, and a range of mental health conditions. These animals don’t need to perform any specific function or tasks other than providing comfort and a therapeutic benefit.

After reading the two descriptions above, you might be thinking that ESA animals and psychiatric service animals sound pretty similar. It’s true that they’re both used to help with mental health conditions — but there are some key differences.

What’s the Difference?

Hopefully, you can already see the principal differences between the two types of animals. While psychiatric service animals help their owners with specific tasks, an emotional support animal’s role is less clear-cut.

This gives a brief insight into how the categories differ, but there are also some far more precise distinctions.

The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies five main differences between ESAs and PSAs:

  1. Purpose: What the animal’s responsibilities and roles revolve around.
  2. Legal protection: How the law classifies the animals and what rights it grants them and their owners.
  3. Public access: Where owners have a legal right to take their animals.
  4. Training: How animals can qualify as each type and what training they must undergo.
  5. Species: The species that can legally be classified as each category.

We’ll examine each aspect in detail before going on to answer some further questions.

Purpose

So far, we’ve touched on the slightly different responsibilities and functions of psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals. Now, it’s time to look at the specific tasks and activities that both types of animals are typically expected to perform.

Psychiatric Service Animals

Psychiatric service animals are used to help people with a broad range of conditions, so the exact tasks they’re trained to perform are highly personal and vary widely. However, here’s an overview of some of the most common roles.

Often, PSAs learn to search a room on behalf of a person who suffers from hyper-vigilance or to react to specific sounds (like alarms) or unusual noises. Similarly, they can perform safety checks for those with PTSD. This all helps to put the owner at ease, reducing their mental burden.

Another common function involves letting people adapt more easily to being out in public than they would without their animals. PSAs can help their owners orient themselves in a large crowd, possibly even locating certain people or places. They can also give balance assistance or added security and navigate through crowded or stressful environments.

They’re invaluable in times of crisis. In some cases, they can even retrieve medications, ring bells to remind their owners to take medication, and react to harmful or compulsive behaviors by interrupting their owners. For those who suffer from anxiety disorders, animals can perform the pivotal role of responding to the attack, helping their owner to return to their normal state and readjust.

Yet these animals can also help owners out with more everyday tasks around the home. For instance, they can prompt their owners to follow healthy habits and routines (like waking up in the morning).

They may also provide comfort and therapeutic benefits to their owners, similarly to emotional support animals — but this isn’t the primary purpose of a psychiatric service animal.

Emotional Support Animals

Rather than helping their owners with tasks or following treatment plans, emotional support animals simply provide comfort and therapeutic services to their owners. Since all owners view emotional support differently, there’s no specific plan or role these animals must follow.

Naturally, with such a difference in the tasks both types of animals perform, ESAs and PSAs have very different rights.

Legal Protection

“Emotional support animal” and “psychiatric service animal” aren’t terms that we can just throw around — they’re legal classifications that carry very different implications.

We’ll get to exactly how to qualify for each type later, but now, let’s have a quick overview of the key laws affecting the animals.

Americans With Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act covers psychiatric service dogs, which makes them exempt from many restrictions imposed on other types of animals and pets. This protects their owners, who could end up in danger if they couldn’t take their PSAs everywhere with them.

Legally, wherever the public is allowed to go, owners must also be able to take their psychiatric service dogs. The law obligates all local and state governments, businesses, and other organizations to make these allowances.

ESAs don’t come under the ADA, so they have significantly fewer rights and could be denied access to various public places.

Fair Housing Act

Another key piece of legislation is the Fair Housing Act, under which both types of dogs can live with their owners — even if the housing has a “no pets” policy in place. It’s one of the few privileges that emotional support animals enjoy over regular pets.

This goes beyond simply allowing owners to have their animals with them. Owners are also protected from paying any additional fees or deposits due to their animals — living with a PSA or ESA is a right, not a privilege.

The law applies not just to long-term rentals but also temporary accommodation like AirBnbs, hotels, college dorms, and similar.

Differences Between States

The protection that comes from the two acts outlined above is only the bare minimum. Some states go beyond this by providing further protection. For instance, in Rhode Island, the ADA law applies to service animals’ trainers and not just the owners.

It’s also worth noting that, although some states don’t protect psychiatric service animals, the federal laws override these laws’ validity. Therefore, owners and their animals are still protected.

Public Access

As we’ve seen, psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals are covered by different laws, their owners are allowed to take them to different places. Let’s take a more detailed look at where exactly ESAs and PSAs are allowed to go.

Airplanes

dog on airplane

Unlike regular pets, psychiatric service animals are allowed to stay in the cabin with their owners during a flight. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) states that all commercial airlines must allow service animals on board.

Until recently, emotional support animals were also allowed to ride on airplanes with their owners. However, this has now changed. As of 11 January 2021, the Department of Transportation has ruled that only psychiatric service animals can fly on planes.

However, the finer details of the rules get somewhat confusing. Owners don’t actually need to prove that their animal is a service animal at all — they just need to sign a document agreeing to certain conditions, such as their PSA being vaccinated. This has led to some concerns the system could be abused.

Individual airlines can impose more restrictions on anyone trying to take these animals on board, though. Some airlines may require anyone flying with a psychiatric service animal to submit a signed certification beforehand, which involves proving the animal is trained and well-behaved.

However, be aware that all countries have different legislations, which is something to be aware of when traveling between foreign countries on a non-American airline.

Other Types of Transportation

Thanks to the ADA, psychiatric service animals have the right to accompany their owners on taxis, trains, buses, and any other types of transportation imaginable.

With emotional service dogs, it’s not so straightforward. The law doesn’t state that these animals must be allowed — but in most cases, they are. It’s common even for non-ESA pets to travel with their owners on some of these transport modes.

Open Spaces

The same rules apply to open spaces. Regardless of any “no pet” rules in place, owners of psychiatric service animals can take their pets to all kinds of public spaces. These include beaches, university campuses, parks, libraries, and anything else that’s publicly owned.

Emotional support animals don’t enjoy the same privilege.

Bars, Restaurants, and Stores

Although animals usually aren’t allowed into stores, cafes, restaurants, and similar establishments, this doesn’t apply to PSAs. Again, the ADA covers them.

Yet there’s no law stating that restaurants, bars, and stores must allow emotional support animals into their promises, so this comes down to the business owner’s discretion. We recommend calling in advance to explain the situation.

But unfortunately, just because PSAs have a legal right to be in these places, it doesn’t preclude the possibility of the animals being refused entry (or asked to leave if they misbehave). This can happen in the case of aggressive animals or uninformed staff.

The Workplace

The ADA doesn’t explicitly require workplaces to allow psychiatric service animals, but it does ask employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for staff with disabilities. In most cases, an employee having an animal to help them manage their disability falls into this category.

Under the same clause, some emotional support animals could also be brought into work, depending on the exact circumstances and condition. However, it’s essential to apply for a reasonable accommodation beforehand — don’t just turn up on the first day of work with an animal in tow.

Of course, some careers would be unsuitable for these types of animals. Employers have the right to deny a service animal if it creates “undue hardship” to accommodate them, but they can’t deny a request without having a reasonable explanation. This could apply in the case of a firefighter or surgeon, for instance — the animal could put everyone in danger.

Education

Unlike the workplace, there are laws in place that state students must be able to bring psychiatric service dogs into their educational institutions. This comes under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

However, the rules are relatively complex, so it’s best to discuss it with the establishment beforehand.

Although ESAs aren’t explicitly covered, many educational institutions are likely to make provisions.

Training

As mentioned already, psychiatric service animals must be trained to help their owners perform their daily tasks or to respond in moments of need.

They must be able to recognize when their owner needs them (e.g., when they’re about to do something harmful or have a panic attack), and they must also be able to react.

Because owners are so reliant on their service animals to carry out many tasks, it’s imperative that PSAs are highly obedient and never wander off or play up.

In contrast, emotional support animals don’t face any particular criteria. They don’t need to be trained at all to receive a legal classification as an ESA.

But since an ESA’s main purpose is to provide support and comfort, they need to be calm enough to make their owners feel safe. An aggressive animal that misbehaves is unlikely to achieve this. Plus, bad behavior could result in the animal being denied access to housing or other public places.

Another difference is that psychiatric service dogs undergo a training program tailored to one person since they perform such a specific role in their owner’s life.

It may be possible to send the animal away to a training program elsewhere, but this isn’t recommended. Because the relationship between a PSA and its owner is so crucial, it’s helpful for the owner to be part of the program along with a professional trainer so the pair develop a bond.

The whole training program for a PSA is likely to take one to two years.

Species

Although the official term is a psychiatric service animal, the Americans with Disabilities Act limits its definition of the PSA role to dogs — or, occasionally, miniature horses.

Because ESAs aren’t as closely regulated, there’s more leniency regarding the range of animals that can be classed as emotional support. As you’d expect, cats and dogs are the most common, but other types of animals can also be registered — including smaller animals like rabbits, rodents, turtles, and ferrets.

There are some limits, but there’s more of a common-sense approach to which animals are allowed, with the verdict depending on the discretion of the mental health professional that makes the judgment.

Generally, animals that are larger than a big dog are unlikely to be approved. However, in some rural settings, pigs or goats may be allowed.

Who can Qualify?

service dog in uniform

Now you know the key differences between support and service animals, you might be wondering exactly who is eligible for each type.

Psychiatric Animals

Since psychiatric service animals are for people who need an animal to entrust certain life tasks or activities to, only a select few can qualify. According to the American with Disabilities Act,  a mental disability is either a “mental or psychological disorder,” an “emotional or mental illness”, or one of a few specific learning disabilities.”

There’s no list of qualifying conditions, but some of the disabilities that commonly qualify include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders (ADD/ADHD)
  • Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Also, simply having one of the conditions above isn’t enough — the owner must be able to prove that their animal can help them with specific tasks that they couldn’t perform alone.

Regardless of the condition, if the animal’s main function is companionship, it becomes an emotional support animal by default.

Emotional Support Animals

Although it’s more straightforward to get an ESA than a psychiatric service animal, it’s not the case that anyone can wake up one day and claim their pet is for emotional support.

Rather, you need to get an official letter from a licensed mental health counselor stating that you have a disability a support animal can help alleviate.

The following conditions can qualify:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Stress

You might have noticed there’s some overlap here — for instance, people with anxiety disorders could possibly be eligible for both types of animals. Again, this is because it depends on what the owner is actually using the animal for.

Unfortunately, the relative ease of obtaining an emotional support animal has meant some people have abused the system — journalists have reported an increase in “fake emotional support animals.” To support the industry, dubious “psychologists” have popped up across the web offering fake letters.

This is one of the reasons that airplane restrictions have been tightened, no longer allowing emotional support animals to travel in cabins with their owners. It’s even resulted in some service animals facing greater restrictions — despite the laws in place to protect them — because business owners or staff have seen bad press surrounding them.

What About Therapy Dogs?

You might also have come across the term “therapy dogs” or “therapy animals.” Given that emotional support animals provide therapeutic services, they’re often confused with therapy dogs, but the two categories of animals are actually very different.

Emotional support animals are only licensed to support one specific person’s needs, so they shouldn’t be used to provide comfort to a group of people.

In contrast, therapy animals are trained expressly for this purpose. They’re used for larger groups in scenarios like hospices, retirement homes, schools, and hospitals to provide comfort to everyone.

To become a therapy dog, an animal must be certified and registered by a therapy dog organization.

Seek Out the Help You Need

While the technical details regarding how to classify psychiatric service animals versus emotional support animals can get complex, the overall difference is pretty simple.

Psychiatric service animals are trained to help their owners with specific tasks and functions they need to go about their daily routine, so they have a legal right to go practically everywhere with their owners. In contrast, emotional support animals have the more general role of providing comfort and relief to their owners.

If you’re struggling with a mental disability or mental health issue, you might be considering taking on one of these animals to help you (or even training and licensing a pet you already have).

It’s hard to know which type is the right fit for you and your needs in many cases — every situation is different. We therefore recommend talking to a mental health or medical professional to discuss the matter further.