You may have seen a dog walking around the grocery store or even the airport.  Why are these dogs able to be in places where pets are not typically allowed? The reason is, these animals are not pets, they are working animals!  Service animals are specifically trained animals that help people with disabilities by performing work/doing tasks. These highly trained animals can help their handlers with tasks specific to their disability.  Some examples of tasks are guiding a person with a visual impairment, alerting to a person with low blood sugar, creating space between their handler and crowds, and providing deep pressure in the event of a panic attack.  Service animals are permitted anywhere that the general public is allowed.  However, there are some limitations.  Service animals must be controlled by their handler and housebroken.  More specific guidelines about service animals can be found on the Americans with Disabilities Act website.   

A lot of people are confused about the difference between service animals and emotional support animals (ESA).  There are many companies whose marketing adds to this confusion. The biggest difference: emotional support animals are NOT working animals!  While a Service animal is classified as a working animal, ESAs are considered pets.  Tasks performed by service animals must be specifically related to the handler’s disability and mitigate it in some way.  ESAs are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Instead, they are covered by the Federal Fair Housing Act.  This means that an ESA is not able to accompany their owner to all spaces that the public is allowed, rather, housing providers are unable to deny an ESA owner access to housing due to a no pets policy, impose breed/size restrictions, or charge “pet rent”.  However, again, there are some limitations which are better defined by the law.  One example of this would be if the ESA poses a danger to other tenants. 

Now that we have covered the difference between service animals and ESAs, the question becomes: how can having an animal support my mental health?  There are multiple different ways 

  • Psychiatric Service Animal: these animals are task trained service animals.  These animals (typically dogs, though sometimes mini horses!) can perform tasks such as sensing a panic attack before it begins and mitigating symptoms, creating space between handler and emotional triggers, retrieving medications, finding help, and providing mobility support.  Some diagnoses that these animals can help with are Anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.  
  • Emotional Support Animal: these animals provide support and companionship (specifically to the person who they are “prescribed” for).  They can help ease symptoms of a variety of mental health diagnoses by having a bond with their owner.  They can oftentimes do activities with their owner such as walking, cuddling, and giving kisses! 
  • General “pet”: these animals can be any living animal that you love! While these animals are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act, they are by no means less lovable than their counterparts! Owning a pet has been shown to be beneficial for mental health in general.   

By Meghan Henseler 

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