Differences between Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals

What exactly are the Differences between Service, Emotional Support, and Therapy Animals?

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 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.

Summary Chart

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



trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities provide emotional well-being of for people with disabilities

trained to provide comfort to individuals in specific environments

Applicable Federal Laws

Only State & Local Laws Apply

Type of Animal

Dog or Miniature Horse Any Animal
(with some exclusions)

Any Animal

Should Be Certified or Registered

Must Have Documentation Identifying the Disability

Travel in the Cabin of an Airplane

Allowed in No-Pet Housing

Able to Have in Public Places

Animal Must Be Leashed or Tethered at All Times

Must Wear a Leash or Vest Identifying the Animal

Not Always Required

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