Service Animal? Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? Therapy Animal?

Many people commonly confuse or interchangeably misuse the terms service animal, emotional support animal, assistance animal, and a therapy or psychiatric animal. The key to understanding these differences pertains to three important U.S. federal laws: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and Fair Housing Act (FHA).

Service Emotional Support Therapy Dog TravelService Animal is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “dogs or miniature horses that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities” (Section 504, Department of Justice summary of service animals based on their 2010 updates to the ADA regulations). Click here for more frequently asked questions pertaining to service animal and the ADA law.

Emotional Support Animal is defined the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) as “any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a qualified person with a disability; or any animal shown by documentation to be necessary for the emotional well-being of a passenger (§14 CFR Part 382).

Assistance Animal is defined by the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as “an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability” (FHEO Notice 2013-01). Thus an assistance animal is the general term for either a service animal or an emotional support animal.

Therapy Animal is commonly defined as an animal, usually a dog/canine, that may be formally trained to provide comfort to individuals in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, etc. None of the three laws already mentioned apply to a therapy animal.

This chart distinguishes between these the different terms and identify the applicable federal laws:

Differences Emotional Support Animal Service and Therapy Chart
Differences Emotional Support Animal Service and Therapy Chart