Emotional Support Animals v. Service Dogs – Differences and Issues

Until I came to college, I never knew the difference between emotional support animals and service animals. I thought they were just two different names for the same thing. So what is the difference between an emotional support animal and service animal? While both are protected under the Air Carriers Access Act and the Fair Housing Authority, there are different benefits and issues that come with them. Read to learn more and start a conversation in the comments below!


Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals have become increasingly popular, showing up around college campuses, shopping malls, and even planes.  Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are used to help patients suffering from PTSD, anxiety, agoraphobia, aerophobia, depression, stress, and even shyness. These animals help release endorphins in their owners, boosting their self-esteem and increase socialization, motivation, and comfort. They can come in different breeds or even animal types. To qualify your pet, all you have to do is show proof of an emotional disability through a medical recommendation by your healthcare professional.

Service Dogs

Service dogs, on the other hand, are specially trained to perform a specific task to help someone with a disability. Service animal only consists of dogs or mini horses. The Service Dog Registration of America considers service dogs working animals, not pets. Service dogs need to go through 18-24 months of school consisting of manners, obedience and task training.


Daniel the ESA duck on his first plane ride.
Daniel, the ESA duck takes his first plane ride, photo courtesy of Travel+Leisure.

In recent years, ESA’s have become increasingly popular with Delta reporting a 150 percent increase in flying animals since 2015. While I believe ESA’s have an important role for those who truly need them, it has become so popular that people have begun taking advantage of the system. The only thing you need to register a pet as an ESA is a letter from your doctor. That’s it. There are not many regulations to an ESA, meaning the animals expand much farther than your average pet dog or cat.

ESA Peacock in airport
Dexter, the ESA Peacock waiting to board a flight, courtesy of the New York Times

Take a look at the pictures on the right for example. Daniel, the ESA duck riding on an American Airlines or Dexter, the ESA Peacock trying to board a United Airlines flight at Newark Liberty National Airport (Though, the Federal Department of Transportation guidelines regarding “unusual animals,” says they can be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.” In this case, Dexter was denied from flying)

After cases like this began popping up in early 2018, Delta decided to change their flying animal policy.

“As of March 1, passengers flying with an animal will have to provide proof of their animal’s vaccinations or health records at least 48 hours before their scheduled Delta flight. Additionally, travelers flying Delta with emotional support animals will need to sign a voucher before boarding the plane that states their pets can and will behave on the flight.”

What do you think?

I want to hear your opinions! What is your reaction to these  regulations? Do you think people should be allowed to bring exotic animals on flights if they’re registered emotional support animals? How do you feel about the increasing use of emotional support animals and do you think it’s being abused? Let me know in the comments below!

Stay tuned for more creature posts to come!




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