A lot of people want to know the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal (ESA). Many airplanes, hotels, train stations, and apartments require special documentation indicating that your pet meets the criteria of either one or the other, so that you can travel with them, live with them, and claim them as a necessity part of your mental or physical health.
But what is the difference? Here are the facts:
An emotional service animal (ESA) is a pet that a mental health professional has said provides a distinct service for a person to help them maintain stability and functionality in their day-to-day life.
ESA’s can be prescribed by many different professional including psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, some nurses and social workers.
A service animal sounds the same but is very different. When a pet is a service animal, this usually means that the person has a medical or psychiatric disability. This is the determination that can only be made by a medical provider.
Not all mental health professionals are considered medical providers. A medical provider is somebody like a physician, nurse practitioner, psychiatrist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner.
And they’re actually is quite an important difference — citing a medical or psychiatric disability gives you the opportunity to enroll in disability benefits, withdraw from school or work, receive governmental assistance, and obtain special accommodation in many other areas. Status of disability is a legal state – and subject to all kinds of charges and fines if deemed fraudulent.
If I document requires that you have a service animal for a disability, be careful. Sometimes a letter for an ESA will not suffice. If you have an ESA, be careful not to say that you have a disability, if you don’t.
One very important tip to remember is that your mental health information is private and confidential.
Nobody, not including a government agency, such as TSA or airport security, has a right to ask you what your disability is. They also are not qualified to tell you if your disability is a disability or not.
The only question that they may ask is what the dog does for you and if it is an ESA or service animal per a licensed provider’s written documentation. Recently, airlines have also required passengers to sign a form saying that they will take care of any mess caused by the pet.
Guess what else? The animal does not have to be trained in any special service to be an ESA or support animal. Currently in the US, there are no regulatory boards that certifies animals as ESA or service dogs.
Those vests? Not legally required. Certificate of training? Not legally required. Companies all over Google are making hundreds of dollars ripping off naive patients, selling these things and pretending that you need ID cards. Also, not legally required.
As a licensed psychiatric nurse practitioner and dog lover, I think that every pet, which part of our lives, which we have adopted, which we have raised, and who waits for us at the end of our long work day — provides emotional support. It would be impossible for me to say that a support animal is merely a decorative pet and does not provide emotional support.
In conclusion, be confident when you’re seeking accommodation for your emotional support animal, know your rights, know that you do not have to answer personal, private questions pertaining to your disability or your medical history.
If you have a medical or psychiatric disability, know that there are even more regulations and laws that protect you and your health privacy.
We are we are all creatures of the world here to take care of other, and we forget sometimes how much our pets take care of us.
Keep fighting stigma, my friends. Join my fight.
Go here to find a pet that is looking for an amazing person like you.
Go here to learn about my awesome practice in Miami Beach.
Chris Lee, PMHNP-BC
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner