Service Animals Versus Emotional Support Animals: What Are the Differences?


Despite an increasing number of reports of passengers passing off their pets as “emotional support animals” in order to bypass paying to transport them in the cargo hold of an airplane, there are distinct differences between a service animal and an animal used to provide its owner “emotional support.” Those distinctions are listed below.

Service Animal

The official definition of a service animal — according to the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice of the United States pertaining to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA — is as follows:

Service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.

This definition does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act or the broader definition of “service animal” under the Air Carrier Access Act.

Some State and local laws also define service animal more broadly than the ADA does. Information about such laws can be obtained from the State attorney general’s office.

Additionally, service animals must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered — unless these devices interfere with the intended work of the service animal or the disability of the individual prevents using these devices. In that case, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.

Only two questions may legally be asked by employees of an airline — or of any other company, for that matter:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

When it is not obvious what service an animal provides, an employee of an airline or other company cannot do the following actions without violating federal law:

  • Ask about the nature of the disability of the person
  • Require medical documentation
  • Require a special identification card or training documentation for the dog; or
  • Ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task

…but the two permitted questions may be more than enough in some cases to have determined whether or not a dog is a legitimate service animal.

Even if a dog is considered a legitimate service animal, an employee of an airline or other company could still have it removed from the premises if the dog is considered:

  1. Out of control and the handler does not take effective action to control it; or
  2. Not housebroken

While not every bullet point found on the following list may apply to airlines, they do apply to such travel establishments as airport lounges and hotel properties:

  • Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility — such as an airport lounge or a hotel lobby, for example — they both should be accommodated by assigning them to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility, if it is at all possible.
  • Establishments which sell or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas — even if state or local health codes prohibit animals on the premises.
  • People with disabilities who use service animals cannot be isolated from other patrons; treated less favorably than other patrons; or charged fees that are not charged to other patrons without animals. Additionally, if a business requires a deposit or fee to be paid by patrons with pets, it must waive the charge for service animals.
  • If a business — such as a hotel property — normally charges guests for damage that they cause, a customer with a disability may also be charged for damage caused by himself or his service animal.
  • Staff are not required to provide care or food for a service animal.

Emotional Support Animal

An emotional support animal is a companion animal which provides therapeutic benefit to an individual designated with a disability — such as depression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks or anxiety as only a few of many examples. While only dogs — and, in a separate provision which need not be discussed here, miniature horses — can be officially designated as service animals, emotional support animals can also be cats and other animals as prescribed by a physician or other medical professional if the owner of the animal has a verifiable disability in accordance with federal law of the United States.

A commercial airline is permitted to require a passenger traveling with an emotional support animal provide written documentation that the animal is an emotional support animal — unlike for a service animal. A fee does not apply to service animals of passengers with disabilities — not even on airlines such as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, which are known for their proliferation of ancillary fees. Here is a list of airlines based in North America with links to their official policies pertaining to animals:

Emotional support animals are not subject to the same training requirements as service animals; nor are they required to be caged — meaning that the policies and requirements for the designation of emotional support animals are more lax than those for service animals. There have been reports of passengers who have not been officially diagnosed with a disability and have allegedly attempted to bring their pets aboard an airplane — fraudulently passing them off as emotional support animals.

Although that statement could be considered harsh, it is not that simple, as passengers who are officially diagnosed as disabled in some way or can provide proof that their animals were prescribed to them by a physician or other medical professional have a right to travel freely; and if they decide to travel, no one can discriminate against them.

In order to prevent discrimination by commercial airlines — based both within and outside of the United States — against passengers on the basis of physical or mental disability, the Air Carrier Access Act was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1986; and here are where complaints may be registered against an airline via the official Internet web site of the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division of the Department of Transportation of the United States.


Despite airlines specifically having their own rules pertaining to service animals aboard airplanes, there are an increasing number of passengers taking unfair advantage of the Air Carrier Access Act, as rules imposed by the federal government of the United States trump those by airlines.

The distinction becomes even more blurry when the animal is used for “emotional support.” Although a dog wears a vest which designates it as a service animal, it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not it is legitimate. You can purchase a service dog or emotional support animal kit for as little as $49.00 — cheaper than just about any airfare for the animal — and have that animal be your companion in the passenger cabin.

A discussion by members of InsideFlyer on this topic currently exists — and although it was launched back in 2012, the topic is not outdated; so you are welcome to please opine and share your thoughts with other members of InsideFlyer

…but until and unless there is stricter legislation on what constitutes a legitimate emotional support animal, do not be surprised to see more dogs and cats as fellow passengers on your flights in the future — as well as pigs, turkeys, monkeys, parrots, miniature horses and other animals.

Photograph ©2006 by B. Cohen.

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