Differences between Pets, Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals

4 min read

Domesticated animals that live amicably with us, sharing our homes and our hearts, aren’t always just our pets—sometimes, they’re our caretakers. In the United States, more than four thousand service dogs were placed in the years 2013 and 2014, and there are a total of ten thousand service dogs currently living in the country according to the California State Guide Dog Board. Because differences in laws and regulations regarding these types of animals have resulted in enough conflict to garner media attention, it has become more and more important for the general public to understand the difference between pets, emotional support animals, and service animals. 

Some Definitions

Pet: A pet is simply a domesticated animal who lives under the care of a pet owner.

Emotional Support Animal: Sometimes abbreviated to ESA, an emotional support animal is legally designated as an animal necessary for the health of any individual with a severe mental illness, according to the American Kennel Club.

Service Animal: First things first—service animals are not pets. General manager of Service Dogs America Paul Bowskill says that, instead, service animals are “an extension of the person who has [a] disability.” Service animals, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), are “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”

Bringing an Animal into Your Care

To bring any one of these types of animals into your care, you must first understand the necessary process to obtain the animal. Depending on whether you require an emotional support animal, a service animal, or if you’re simply hoping for the companionship of a pet, you’ll need to proceed differently.


To acquire a pet, a future pet owner must first decide whether they’d like to adopt an animal from an animal shelter or if they would rather purchase their pet from a breeder. Some people also choose to foster animals. In other words, you may choose to temporarily take a dog into your care to prepare the dog for adoption or to free up a space in the animal shelter for another rescue. Remember to thoroughly research your breeder before purchasing a dog or cat. Sadly, most animal lovers do not realize until too late that they have been duped by a puppy mill or pet shop.

Emotional Support Animals

The process to acquire an ESA is very similar to that of acquiring a pet. The only difference is that, in order for the animal to be recognized as an ESA, the pet owner must have an appropriate diagnosis from a physician and must also have completed paperwork from a health professional designating the animal as an ESA.

Service Animals

Acquiring a service animal, on the other hand, is entirely different from the relatively simple process associated with pets and emotional support animals. Unlike the short amount of time it takes to acquire a pet or an ESA, getting a service dog is a long process, sometimes taking years. Any individual in need of a service animal will first require a diagnosis and a medical recommendation stating that a service animal will help them to live more safely and comfortably with their disability. A number of non-profit organizations across the country such as Little Angels Service Dogs, Service Dogs for America, and Canine Partners for Life dedicate themselves to training service animals and matching them with differently-abled individuals in need of a service animal.

Benefits of Pets, Service Animals, and ESAs


The value of a pet’s companionship can never be understated, and the bonds between pet owners and their pets can be just as valuable as a relationship with any other friends or family. Pets are especially helpful for people who live alone or who otherwise struggle with loneliness.

Emotional Support Animals

A study in the Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work has demonstrated that after only one week of living with an ESA, individuals with PTSD or other trauma-related mental health concerns experienced an 82% reduction in related symptoms. However, ESAs aren’t just for people with PTSD—doctors are also encouraging the use of ESAs for individuals with anxiety, depression, a fear of being outside, a fear of flying, and social difficulties.

Service Animals

Because service animals are animals who are trained and certified to assist in the daily lives of differently-abled individuals, they are particularly beneficial for helping these individuals to experience their lives more safely, fully, and confidently.

Taking a Look at the Law

Pets, service animals, and ESAs are not seen equally in the eyes of the law. The ADA states that, because ESAs have not been specifically trained to perform work or tasks to aid a differently-abled individual, they are not service animals and are therefore not covered under the protections of the ADA.

Distinctions between these three types of animals become particularly important when flying with pets, for example. The ways that an animal owner embraces pet travel will differ significantly depending on their animal’s legal designation. While the right of an individual to travel with a service animal is guaranteed under the ADA, it’s still critical for a service animal owner to check the specific policies of their chosen airline prior to bringing their service animal with them into the cabin of an airplane. Similarly, airline carriers will allow travel with an ESA if the appropriate paperwork is provided and other requirements are followed.

Airlines are not legally obligated, however, to provide special accommodations for individuals traveling with their pets. The best way for pet owners and people living with a service animal to stay abreast of these laws and regulations is to always double-check policies before traveling or flying with their animals. Be familiar with the paperwork provided by your healthcare provider, and read the rights afforded to you by the ADA.

Caring for Pets and Service Animals

There is one thing that pets, emotional support animals, and service animals all have in common—all of these animals need the same kind of care! Service animals may be hard at work, but they, too, need regular veterinary checkups, vaccinations, and plenty of exercise. Those with special needs can discuss with their doctors, their animal’s veterinarian, and service dog organizations around the country how to ensure that their animal is getting the best possible care.

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