We’ve all seen guide dogs, cats on planes, and even rabbits in hospitals and nursing homes helping people and providing support. However, not all of them fall under the same definition, and different laws apply to different types of service animals. Do most of us know what is a service animal, and why is having one so important in people’s lives? 

Saying that service animals help people is too broad a definition. These animals provide much more than a service — they allow people with disabilities to live again. Emotional support, physical assistance, or just having another living being show you love and devotion can take someone out of the depths of despair and give them hope that a physical or psychological disability is not a reason to stop living.

What Is a Service Animal?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as a dog “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” Disabilities are not always limited to physical impairments; service canines can also help people suffering from mental health issues so severe that they impair their everyday lives, such as PTSD and depression.

Animals trained to provide comfort to people affected by “emotional” disabilities with just their presence are not categorized under types of service animals. For example, people with diabetes may use a dog to inform them when their blood sugar levels are low or high or remind them to take their medication. These animals also help people with disabilities escape stressful and potentially dangerous situations.

Unlike service animals, emotional support animals (ESAs) and therapy animals are not trained to take action. Rather, they benefit people with their presence. Therapy animals are trained to offer comfort to people in stressful environments. They commonly accompany handlers to schools, nursing homes, and hospitals, and they provide support or socialization to the people in these institutions. 

What Is a Service Animal by Law?

According to the ADA, service animals are dogs, and only dogs, that help people with disabilities lead better and more independent lives. Other animals such as miniature horses can also qualify as service animals (under special circumstances), but it’s up to the state and local government agencies and private businesses to decide whether they accept miniature horses as service animals or not. Factors such as size and weight are usually taken into consideration in these cases.

Can Cats Be Service Animals?

The short answer is no.

Many would argue that if dogs can do it, so can cats. However, the ADA doesn’t recognize felines as service animals, which makes sense to some extent. Yes, cats are amazing, and we all love them (and claim that we can train them), but cats can’t pull wheelchairs or guide blind people to cross a busy street. In other words, when it comes to defining a service animal, a cat just doesn’t make the cut. They are perfect as ESAs, though, and thus enjoy some of the privileges awarded to service canines. 

The same goes for other animals like ferrets, pigs, parrots, boa constrictors, and monkeys. These animal species can be trained to perform various tasks and help disabled people, but they do not legally qualify as service animals.

What Sets Service Animals Apart From Other Animals?

Service animals must be specially trained to do tasks individually suited to their handlers’ needs. An emotional support dog or a therapy canine is not trained to carry out actions; it helps people by being in their presence. 

What Are the Specific Tasks Service Canines Perform?

Depending on the disability in question, there are various tasks that service animals will be required to do for their owners, from performing physical duties to providing companionship and comfort. The service they give must be tailored to their owners’ needs and requirements. 

Types of Service Dogs

Some of the most common types of service pups include, but are not limited to:

  • Guide dogs for the blind.
  • Hearing dogs for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Mobility assistance dogs that help people in wheelchairs, or individuals with mobility limitations.
  • Diabetes assistance dogs use scent to detect if their handler’s blood sugar levels are high or low.
  • Autism service dogs that assist people with autism by alerting them about distracting movements and helping them gain more independence. They also improve verbal and non-verbal communication and facilitate interaction with the rest of the world. 
  • Allergy detection dogs who detect the smallest traces of allergens in their handler’s environment.
  • Seizure response dogs protecting people who have seizure disorders during an episode.
  • Mental health service canines that help people suffering from PTSD, depression, and severe anxiety disorders.

What Do Service Dogs Do?

The work or tasks that special animals do must be directly connected to the disability of the handler. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Helping individuals with vision impairments, or people who are blind, to navigate.
  • Helping individuals with hearing impairments, or people who are deaf and alerting them to the presence of other people or sounds.
  • Helping an individual during a seizure.
  • Carrying medicine and other necessary provisions in special service dogs’ backpacks.
  • Retrieving or fetching items that the handler needs.
  • Providing support and assistance to people with mobility issues.
  • Alerting handlers that it’s time to take their medication.
  • Assisting individuals with serious mental health issues, such as severe anxiety, PTSD, and depression.
  • Informing others of an emergency, i.e., that their handler needs assistance.

Emotional Benefits of Service Animals

In addition to physical advantages, service animals provide the following emotional benefits as well:

  • Companionship — A service animal, as well as an emotional support animal, can relieve feelings of loneliness. What’s more, it will never discriminate against your disability and will be your friend for life.
  • Independence and confidence — Service animals can make you feel less reliant on others for your needs, as well as give you a boost of self-confidence, empowering you to become more socially active.
  • Inspiration — Facing any disability or illness, especially a life-long one, can make you want to give up on life. With an animal by your side, you will feel ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.  

Service Dogs for Veterans

Service canines have been proven very successful in helping army veterans. Many members of the army returning from service suffer from trauma, severe cases of PTSD, and other disabling conditions.

Veterans paired with a service dog have witnessed a reduction in drug abuse and suicide rates, as well as a decrease in the number of serious mental breakdowns. Many of them have reported feeling safe and comfortable after getting a dog, and a lot of them have chosen to return to work or college.

How to Get a Service Animal?

Getting a service animal is not a complicated process, although the training could be quite lengthy.

Who Can Qualify for a Service Animal?

To qualify for a service animal, an individual must have a disability that considerably limits their ability to perform one or more major life tasks without help. The next step is to talk to a medical professional and get a diagnosis proving that you are suffering from a physical, mental, or sensory disability and that a service animal would help you manage or mitigate your disability.

Finding a Dog

You can get different types of service dogs from a service dog organization that will train the canine for you. A service dog is expensive and can run you up anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000. If you need a service dog but don’t want to pay through the roof, you can start by adopting a puppy from an animal shelter. This way, you will be saving a life and getting a lifelong companion in the process. 

Another benefit of obtaining companion animals from a shelter or rescue group is that mixed breeds tend to live longer than purebred dogs, giving you more time to spend with your K9 friend. When choosing a dog, remember that the right temperament is one of the most important prerequisites. A calm and eager to please pup has the makings of an excellent service dog.

What Breeds of Dogs Are Best Suited to Be Service Animals?

In general, any of the most popular dog breeds could be trained to become one of the dogs used as different types of service animals, as long as the breed suits the requirements of the owners. For instance, a tiny Havanese isn’t strong enough to pull a wheelchair or provide support, but it can make a great companion to people suffering from serious mental issues. 

Certain breeds like Great Danes or Saint Bernards would be more suited as mobility assistance dogs. Even though most breeds are up to the task of becoming service animals, it’s Labrador Retrievers,  Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds that are most commonly used as service canines.

How to Train Service Dogs

The following step is the most important one. Going through the process and being trained to perform specific functions for their owners is what makes service animals different from pets, ESAs, and therapy canines. When it comes to training, you can either train the dog yourself or hire a professional trainer. Both options are valid and need careful consideration.

Training service dogs is a long and arduous process that can take years. It’s also a huge commitment in terms of energy, money, and time. If you feel unable to do all the work required, using a professional might be the right way to go. Training your dog yourself isn’t without benefits, though. Spending time together will help you form a stronger and more lasting bond with your canine.

While training for U.S. service animals doesn’t have defined requirements as to the hours one must put into training, international standards say that the process should involve at least 120 hours over a minimum of six months. Thirty of these hours should be spent in busy public places, such as shopping malls, bars, restaurants, and public parks.

Passing a Public Access Test 

Whether you’ve trained your dog yourself or you’ve hired a professional, a service animal must behave itself in public. Here’s a list of what is expected of a service animal:

  • A service dog needs to be able to perform all the commands and tasks issued by its handler.
  • It can’t be aggressive towards people or other animals.
  • It should not ask for food or affection while it’s on duty.
  • It shouldn’t get overexcited or hyperactive in public.
  • It shouldn’t relieve itself in public unless it’s told to.
  • It should not engage in unruly behavior (sniffing, barking, biting). 

Service Animal Registration

Certification is by no means necessary, but it doesn’t hurt to have it. Unfortunately, many people try to pass off pets as service dogs, and you might be asked for proof that your animal actually qualifies as a service dog, especially if you do not have a visible disability. The good news is that registering a dog with the ADA is quick and simple. All you need to do to get an ADA service dog certification is log into the site and enter the information required.

Emotional Support Animals

ESAs may not be protected by federal law or recognized by the ADA as service animals; they still play an important role in people’s lives. Even though they don’t perform actual tasks, their presence makes people more confident and relaxed, as well as better prepared to face stressful situations and the challenges of everyday life.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

ESAs usually provide companionship and relieve loneliness, although they are known to help people dealing with phobias and depression. They aren’t trained, but they still need to be well-behaved in public. Although most ESAs are dogs, almost any domestic animal can provide emotional support with their companionship, affection, and mere presence.

How to Get an ESA?

To have an ESA, one must be diagnosed with a verifiable disability by a medical professional. This is done in the form of an emotional support animal letter of prescription by a licensed mental health professional (a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other licensed therapist).

What Kinds of Animals Can Be ESAs?

These animals don’t perform actual tasks, making it easier to qualify your companion as an ESA. The only requirement is that the animal is easy to manage in public and the home. People have used all kinds of animals for emotional support, from chickens and turkeys to kangaroos and goldfish. Sadly, many people take advantage and try to register an emotional support dog and other animal species just to be able to keep them in their homes.

The most popular types of emotional support animals include:

  • Dogs — There’s a reason why dogs are the most popular ESAs ever. Canines make everyone happy. Their love, affection, and energy are enough to cheer anyone up. Not to mention that they have been scientifically proven to combat social isolation and stress.
  • Cats — If you are looking for an emotional support animal, a cat is a great choice. Felines are very good at reading body language and can show you love when you need it, but leave you alone when you want some space. Other than being smaller in size than dogs, cats are low-maintenance and require less care.
  • Pigs — These are incredibly intelligent and gentle animals that can learn the same tricks as service canines. The only difference is that pigs are cleaner, and they don’t shed fur all over the house. 
  • Horses — These fascinating creatures are obedient, easy to train, and fun to be around.

Emotional Support Animal Registration

Registering or certifying an ESA is not compulsory under law. You can register your comfort animal with the ESA Registration of America, although there is no legal requirement. The only document you need to prove that you require an ESA is a letter from a certified medical professional.

Therapy Animals

Unlike service animals and ESAs that are employed to serve one person, therapy canines are encouraged to interact with as many people as possible and give them comfort and affection in stressful situations and environments. A therapy pet can also help children with learning disabilities and is used in physical therapy, as well.

The most common types of animals used for therapy are therapeutic visitation animals. This involves therapy animals going to places such as detention facilities, courtrooms, and hospitals. They socialize with the people in those institutions but go home with their owners at the end of the day.

What Kinds of Animals Can Be Used for Therapy?

Every kind of animal can serve as a therapy animal, as long as it goes through the proper veterinarian assessments, has some basic training, and does well with people. Dogs, cats, horses, and rabbits are most commonly used as therapy animals. Looking at dog breeds, experts agree that Golden Retrievers, German Shepards, Collies, and Cavalier King Spaniels make the best therapy pups.


The AKC doesn’t certify therapy dogs, but it provides a training program that could be used to get your dog recognized as a therapy canine or animal. If you wish to obtain therapy dog certification, you can start here. You can also order ID tags or vests, which, although not required by law, can be useful in identifying your therapy dog or cat as more than just a pet.

It’s important to note that therapy animals are not protected by federal law and are treated just like any other pet. In other words, they are not allowed on airplanes, in “no pet” housing, hotels, or offices. Animal and therapy dog laws vary from state to state, so always check the rules before you try to take your therapy dog in public places.

Rules and Regulations

Laws regulating public access of service animals and ESAs can be a little complicated, and people are not always clear as to where service canines and ESAs are allowed.

Where Are Service Animals Allowed?

According to ADA service dog laws issued in 2018, any areas open to the public are required by law to allow service animals to accompany their handlers, even in establishments that prepare or serve food. ESAs, on the other hand, are not allowed to enter restaurants or malls. Asking about the nature of the disability, requesting proof that your dog is indeed a service animal, or discriminating against service animals and people with disabilities is not acceptable.

At the Workplace 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) doesn’t have specific regulations covering service animals. However, it does mention measures used to help people address their impairments that occur as a result of their disabilities.

In other words, if you’ve got a dog that helps with your anxiety or depression, for example, and its presence at the workplace doesn’t cause unnecessary issues, there is no reason why service canines shouldn’t be allowed to go to the office with their handlers. Employers are entitled to request documentation from a medical professional verifying the need for the animal if the disability isn’t obvious.

In Homes

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) employs the term “assistance animal” for any type of animal that provides a service for a person with a disability. Under the  Fair Housing Act, an emotional support animal or service dog must be allowed in all covered entities, including “no-pets” apartments and condos. Dorms and homeless shelters are usually covered by this act as well as residential housing. 

On Public Transport

The U.S. Department of Transportation has its own rules regarding emotional support and service animals. According to DOT’s regulation, individuals with disabilities are allowed to bring these special companions on public transport. 

On Airplanes

According to emotional support animal laws and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), airlines are required to permit individuals with disabilities to travel along with their service animals or ESAs. However, there are circumstances when the animals might pose a health or safety risk to other passengers and have to be transported in the cargo hold. Under this act, people with ESAs or service animals are not required to pay additional fees or buy an additional ticket.

Rules for Handlers of Service Dogs and ESAs

For those that register an emotional support animal, there are several rules that dogs and their handlers must abide by. Handlers must be able to control their animals with a leash or harness unless the disability of the handler prevents them from using these devices. In that case, owners should use voice commands or other forms of control. If control is not established, business owners or staff have the right to ask for the animal to be removed from the premises.

Fake Service Dogs

People continue to make false claims regarding ESAs and service animals. Sometimes it might be to gain access to an area that is off-limits for pets, such as certain housing units or public transport. Pretending that your pet is a service dog or an ESA is illegal in most U.S. states and is fined with huge sums. The nature and height of penalties under service animal laws by state vary, and some may even involve jail time. However, the biggest damage lies in the harm that false claims cause to the people who really need these animals for their well-being. 

Discriminating Against Service Dogs

It is not uncommon for people to discriminate against those with disabilities and their service animals. Whether it’s because of the increasing number of fake service and emotional support animals out there, or just regular discrimination, the point is it’s illegal, and you are entitled to report any incidence of service dog discrimination.

Before you do, though, make sure that the laws in your state provide full coverage of service animal cases. Ensure that you have as many witnesses as possible or even better, visual evidence of the incident. Take notes of everything, such as the name, address, and phone number of the establishment or business.


What animals can be a service animal?

Under the ADA, only dogs can be service animals.

How do you know if an animal is a service animal?

It might be difficult to assess which animals are pets and which are service animals, especially because dogs are not required by law to wear vests, harnesses, or ID tags marking them as service animals. So how can you tell? You can ask.

What questions can you ask to verify a service dog?

There are only two questions you are allowed to ask, but only if the disability is not obvious:

  • Are you using this dog because of a disability?
  • What kind of work is this dog trained to perform?

You are not allowed to ask about the nature of the disability, ask for certification or other proof that the animal is a service animal.

Is it illegal to have a service dog vest on non-service dogs?

Yes. So far, 23 states have enacted a law against falsely identifying your pet as a service animal or faking a disability, while legislation is pending in two states. 

What is the penalty for faking a service dog?

Punishment for violating fake service dog laws vary from state to state. In California, knowingly putting on a service dog vest on a non-service dog is a misdemeanor and can land you six months in jail and a fine of almost $1,000. Other states, like New Jersey or Texas, impose fines ranging from $100 to $500. 

What is the purpose of a service dog?

Service dogs can be trained to do a variety of tasks for their handlers; however, the basic purpose of a service animal is to make the lives of people with disabilities easier.

Can a rat be a service animal?

By definition, rats can’t be service animals, although they make very good emotional support animals. In fact, many people recommend them and would even like to start a petition to get rats recognized as service animals.

What breed of dog is best for PTSD?

Service canines provide invaluable service to people who have suffered severe trauma. They are the most common among army veterans, victims of sexual assault, and other severe trauma survivors that benefit greatly from service dogs.

These breeds of dogs are recommended as some of the best to help people with PTSD:

  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Poodle
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • German Shepherd

Does insurance pay for service dogs?

Service dogs may be indispensable in the assistance they provide humans, but they are costly. Sadly, Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance don’t cover the cost of service dogs or the additional expenses that come with owning a service animal. Some programs cover the cost of service dogs, but you have to meet specific criteria to qualify.

Can a landlord deny an emotional support animal or service animal?

Even if the support animals are allowed in “no-pet” housing, landlords and housing providers still have the right to ask you for documentation testifying to your need for an ESA. Regarding the service animals, they can only ask you the two above mentioned questions.

In Conclusion

Knowing the difference between service canines, animals that provide emotional support and therapy, and pets is crucial. People in need of service animals or ESAs must be familiar with all the rules governing how these animals are treated.

However, you don’t have to need a service animal to be aware of the regulations and laws. Having the answers to questions like “What is a service animal?” and “How do they help people with disabilities?” goes a long way towards better understanding what these people face on a daily basis, and it reduces discrimination as well. 

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