The Difference Between Emotional Support, Service, and Therapy Animals

Did you know that your pet can greatly improve your quality of life? For ages, keeping a pet has become a cultural norm. In the US alone, there are over 75 million people who keep at least one pet. Aside from the joy and affection that they bring, your pet offers a multitude of health and wellness benefits as well. They keep you fit, help you socialize better, reduce stress, boost your immunity, and improve your mood. Most recently, some pets have even carried on official roles in supporting our day-to-day lives. You have probably already heard of service, therapy, and emotional support animals. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, these three categories are entirely different.


To know more how these terms differ from each other, check out the post below.

Service Animals

Under the American’s with Disabilities Act, service animals are trained to provide assistance to persons with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disabilities. They are not your typical pets, but are recognized as working animals extensively trained to accommodate their handler’s disability.

Service Dog Categories

Presently, there are several categories of service dogs. These are:

  • Guide Dogs – aid visually impaired and blind people.
  • Hearing Dogs – assist hearing-impaired people.
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs – perform a wide range of tasks for mobility-disabled people.
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs – alert if there are chemical changes in the handler’s blood sugar.
  • Seizure Alert Dogs – predict and alert oncoming seizures.
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs- assist developmentally or psychologically disabled people.
  • Autism Support Dogs – assist autistic people.
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Service Dogs – support children who are exposed to alcohol before birth.
  • Allergy Detection Dogs – detect and alert allergy-inducing odors.

When it comes to service dog training, there are no specific guidelines in the United States. However, by international standards, a service dog is encouraged to complete around 120 hours of training either done by you or professionally and pass The Public Access Test. Service dog registration is not required in the United States, but it is still best to do so to ensure that your rights will be respected by landlords, businesses, and etc.

Although dogs are the most commonly known service animals, other species such as miniature horses, ferrets, capuchin monkeys, boa constrictors, parrots, and potbelly pigs can also become service animals.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are any type of animal that can provide comfort and companionship for people with psychological disorders. Formal training is not required for an animal to be recognized as an emotional support animal. However, they are not designed to handle specific tasks but rather work to reduce the negative impact of their handler’s psychological disability. They are not recognized as service dogs by the American Disability Act so businesses are not required to allow emotional support animals in their premises.

However, emotional support animals still possess limited rights as long as you secure proper documentation from a licensed mental health professional. Licensed therapists from Therapetic highlight the importance of acquiring an emotional support animal letter, as it will help you qualify for no-pet housing and can allow you to travel on-air with your emotional support animal. The right to reasonable accommodation is guaranteed by the Fair Housing Act and specific allowances when traveling on airlines are provided by the Air Carrier Act.

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals can be any animal that can provide comfort and affection in a variety of settings. It can be dogs, birds, cats, horses, reptiles, guinea pigs, and rabbits. They are not trained to live with a specific handler but rather to interact with different people in institutional facilities like hospitals, schools, hospices, and nursing homes. They are often part of an animal-assisted therapy program designed to support and reach specific goals of the treatment processes for individuals or groups.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

These animal-assisted therapy treatment objectives are designed to: 

  • Improve motor skills and joint movement.
  • Improve assisted or independent movement.
  • Boost self-esteem.
  • Improve verbal communication.
  • Develop social skills.
  • Encourage engagement in social activities.
  • Motivate the handler to get involved in physical activities.

Although therapy animals work in a therapeutic setting, they do not have the same right to access legal spaces as a service dog or an emotional support animal. If you want your pet to volunteer as a therapy animal, it should be physically examined, trained, insured, and licensed by the sponsoring organization you intend to volunteer in.

There are several ways that animals can help improve people’s lives. To know which type of animal can assist you, it is best to first understand your specific needs and preferences. If you’re unsure whether you need a therapy animal, consult your psychotherapist.