Pet, ESA or Service Animal? What the Difference Means to You

Pet, ESA or Service Animal? What the Difference Means to You

For centuries, dogs and cats have helped Americans live better lives. They hunt with us, protect our livestock, kill off pests and guard us against criminals who would do us harm — not to mention enriching our lives with their company alone.
You’ve probably heard the term “service animal” used to describe pets that somehow enable or empower an owner who is sick, disabled, or otherwise infirm. It’s an important designation; Federal Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act both protect an owner’s right to bring service animals into most public spaces.
You may have also heard the term, “Emotional Support Animal” (ESA). This term describes an animal who is prescribed to a person with emotional or mental health problems.
Pets, ESAs and service animals all have an important role to play in our lives, but they are not all the same. In fact, very few truly qualify for the legal protections afforded to service dogs. The difference between them is so great, it can significantly impact your choice to adopt.
Here’s why.

Pets vs. ESAs vs. Service Animals

As mentioned, there are three essential terms used to describe “working” animals: pet, Emotional Support Animal (ESA) and Service Animal (SA).
Pets are just that — animals you own for companionship. They may fetch your slippers now and again, but they aren’t a medical device.
ESAs, on the other hand, are pets that specially support emotional wellness in some manner, either directly or indirectly. This may include the simple experience of having a pet or something more specific, but most aren’t trained to help with specific tasks. They are permitted into residential rentals and airplanes in most states, but aren’t necessarily allowed in any other public space.
Service animals are in a much higher category. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, only dogs can qualify (there are special considerations for some miniature horses) and they must be individually trained to serve a disabled or infirm person with specific tasks. For example, a service dog might lead someone who is blind or remind someone with PTSD to take their medication.
Service dogs aren’t required to be licensed under the law. However, they must be trained to help with specific tasks.

Abuse and Misconceptions

Here’s the problem: the term “service dog” is rampantly abused and misused.
Most people who misuse the term “service animal” do it without really even understanding what it means in the first place. They don’t mean to misuse it; they’ve just been given the wrong definition. Or, they assume that because their pet helps them in some way, it qualifies as a service animal.
Others lie about the designation to gain the legal (but fraudulent) right to bring their dogs into public spaces, like restaurants or movie theatres. They know their pet isn’t a service animal, but use fake vests to make it seem like they are anyway.
Scam companies take advantage of the confusion by claiming to “sell” official service animal certification online. They say if you pay a $75 fee, your animal will be protected and allowed into public spaces, too. Often, these companies even sell vests and official certificates to give to landlords, restaurant owners and staff at businesses.
None of these companies are legitimate. All prey on people with love for their pets, charging them a yearly or even monthly fee to keep their dog licensed. In reality, licensing from these companies neither grants any legal protections or protects you from being refused right of entry.

The Real Truth About Adopting a Service Animal

So what if you want to adopt a real ESA or service animal? There’s often a very easy way to determine whether or not the animal you’re considering qualifies.
First, real service dogs aren’t cheap. They often require months or even years of training, including sessions with the handler prior to adoption. It isn’t rare to see them sold for upward of $30,000 or more if you’re paying out of pocket.
Finding real service dogs can also be difficult, and it frequently takes a long time to get approved. That’s because most real breeders and trainers have a long list of people waiting to adopt or be assigned a dog.
Some organizations, like Assistance Dogs International, keep an accredited list of breeders and trainers available to the public. This may help you find a place to start looking, if not get you directly to the right one.
Some charities help people adopt service dogs. This includes Service Dogs of America, Paws with a Cause, The Seeing Eye, Southeastern Guide Dogs, and Freedom Service Dogs. Others, including Guide Dogs of America, provide free training of pre-existing dogs after you adopt.
It is also sometimes possible to get funding for service dogs from other sources, such as national charities and major organizations. These organizations don’t adopt out dogs or train them; they only provide the funding to help you adopt.
Above all else, know this: there is no “rapid path” to adopting a service dog. It takes time to match the patient with the right dog, and it’s important that both the patient and the dog understand each other’s needs. Consider it a “long-haul” option, not a quick fix.

What About ESAs?

Any animal can be an ESA — all you need is a note from your doctor saying that the animal is important and necessary for your emotional health. Thus, the best place to get started is at your own doctor’s office. Ask them how they feel about you using an ESA as a tool; if they agree, you can make a plan to adopt.
That said, some breeders do specialize in training ESAs and/or therapy animals. These may be specially bred for temperament, patience and ability to cope with intense sensory experiences (like loud noises or rough petting), and may be better for some patients than a regular pet trained at home.
You can adopt a pet from the local shelter, a pet store or even an individual and have your doctor write it up as an ESA. However, you must be aware that it is your responsibility to train the animal and control it at all times. If you don’t, you can be sued (such as if an ESA bites someone) or even asked to leave the property (such as when a feline ESA causes damage to an apartment).
Just need a bit of company? There’s nothing wrong with adopting a pet. Do your homework, get to know the animal, and be sure to ask the breeder or shelter about their care practices. A healthy, well-tempered pet is still worth its weight in gold.