Cheat sheet: Service dogs, ESAs and pets

FirstlineFirstline May/June 2020
Volume 16
Issue 3

Pets, emotional support animals (ESAs) and service animals have very different rights and responsibilities in veterinary clients lives. Take advantage of your opportunities to gently but firmly educate pet owners on what designations are appropriate for which animals and why its important not to blur the lines between them.

Julie Mullins with dog

Ed is a 7.5-year-old "Waccamaw scruffhound" (fancy name for local shelter dog) who provides emotional support to the author's clients. (Image courtesy of Julie Mullins)

It feels like service dogs, emotional support animlas (ESAs) and therapy dogs are everywhere you look these days. You see them in airplane cabins, in restaurants and in condos known for their strict “No Dogs Allowed!” policies. They're wearing little vests or tags to indicate their "helper" status.

Two questions spring to mind. First, are these animals really helping their owners and, second, what's the difference between these designations?

These animals fill a crucial human need

Let's tackle the first question first: Are they helping? Of course they are-in many ways. Dogs especially are incredibly versatile creatures. They can locate an escaped prisoner in the woods, guide a vision-impaired individual around a busy city, calm an individual in the throes of a severe panic attack and even sniff out cancer cells. They can do all of this with a whimsical wag of their tail and an adorable cock of their head, causing us to fall head over heels in love with them.

Throughout history, dogs have been trained for important tasks as messengers, mine sweepers, scouts and sentries. They've protected households, helped hunt for food, warmed the beds of their owners (a “three-dog night” is a cold one!) and even served as flea traps to keep the pests off their noble owners (gross, right?). They have long been valued for the services they provide, and their usefulness continues today.

Many research articles demonstrate the health benefits of animals. One early study on the subject, published in 2003, found that when people pet dogs, both the animal and the person experience decreased blood pressure and increased oxytocin, endorphin and dopamine levels.

From the companion animal who greets a beloved owner at the door after a long day at work (or a 10-minute trip to the grocery store), to the emotional support animal prescribed by a mental health professional, to the service animal trained to provide a specific task for a person with a disability, dogs fulfill myriad duties for their owners. However, each of these groups is afforded different rights and has different responsibilities within the world of humans.

Every veterinary professional should have a clear understanding of the differences among these designations so they can guide and educate their clients.

Companion animals are pets. They're wonderful and live in the homes of lucky individuals in areas where they're allowed. They encourage activity via daily walks. They connect people in the community during outdoor activities. But companion dogs are generally not allowed inside businesses, and many apartment complexes and school dormitories ban pets altogether. And while many pet owners prefer calm, well-behaved companion animals, this is not a requirement-people can choose to own animals that are on the aggressive side (working with a veterinary behaviorist is recommended).

What about therapy animals?

Therapy dogs (and other animls) used in animal-assisted interventions-such as being present during counseling sessions-must be well mannered, approachable by many kinds of people and able to be touched. They must be older than 1 year, free of parasites and used in goal-oriented, planned and structured interventions. These animals have neither the ADA rights afforded to service animals nor the public access or housing rights granted to ESAs. Animal-assisted interventions must be provided by licensed professionals.

Emotional support animals provide therapeutic support to people with a diagnosed mental illness such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. These animals must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional, and the prescription must state that 1) the individual has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and 2) the presence of the animal is necessary for the individual's mental health. These animals are present for the comfort of the owner and do not require any special training. The animal just needs to meet the needs of its individual owner.

Your animal designation cheat sheet

Companion animal/pet

  • No special requirements other than rabies vaccine and license in some areas
  • No benefits from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • No guarantee to be allowed in housing

Emotional support animal

  • Must be prescribed by licensed mental health professional for diagnosed mental illness; no special canine training necessary
  • Allowed to fly in plane cabin; can be in other public areas with permission of venue
  • Must be allowed in housing, even with “no pets” policy.

Service animal

  • Individual must qualify to have a service dog based on disability; animal is thoroughly screened, temperament-tested and trained for that individual's needs
  • Protected status from the ADA
  • Must be allowed in housing, even with “no pets” policy

ESAs do have more rights than companion animals but not as many as service animals, according to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). ESAs are permitted with their owners in public areas with the permission of the venue. They may also fly with their owners in an airplane cabin. As written in the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA), ESAs are permitted in housing regardless of the housing's pet policy. 

Assistance or service dogs are the other major group of helper animals. These dogs are selected for temperament and highly trained to meet the needs of an individual with a specified physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. Training can take years to complete and cost upwards of $35,000. Service dogs are protected by Title II and III of the ADA and must comply with standards set by Assistance Dogs International, which include stringent testing requirements. These dogs are not to be touched when they are working (you've seen the warnings on their vests) and must be left to do their jobs. An enormous amount of time, training and bonding must be devoted to making a human-dog team work well together well.

Designation manipulation

These important designations are damaged when people try to manipulate them for their own purposes. Unfortunately, ESAs aren't well regulated at this time, and letters can be purchased online without the prerequisite mental health diagnosis, which can cause problems. Consider, for example, a dog owner who is moving into a new apartment with a no-pets policy who purchases a letter online for a couple hundred dollars to make his dog an ESA and thus able to live in the new place. When pet owners purchase letters like these for the sole purpose of being able to “take their dog anywhere” as a “service animal”-without understanding the ESA designation-they're misrepresenting the the "service" title and muddying the waters for those who legitimately need ESAs. 

It is incumbent on veterinarians and veterinary technicians to understand these designations and educate clients on this topic. If clients ever hint that they're going to order an ESA patch for their pet, ask them why. Offer to assist them in locating a licensed professional counselor who can perform a proper diagnostic exam to assess for need. If they insist that they don't need to see a mental health professional, then tell them the ESA designation doesn't apply to them.

Dogs are remarkable and provide for the needs of humans in a multitude of ways, especially as service dogs, emotional support animals and, yes, as pets at home. But making sure everyone understands the differences between these is crucial for the safety of all of us in the public sphere.

After 10 years working in the veterinary field as a veterinary assistant and trainer, Julie felt the call back to school to complete her education. Now, she's a professional counselor passionate about helping individuals and families achieve healthy functioning and is convinced that animals should be a part of that journey. Julie observed the power of the human-animal bond while in the veterinary field and has further witnessed the power of the presence of her own dog, Ed, in the counseling sessions she conducts.

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