The Difference Between Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals

The Difference Between Emotional Support Animals and Psychiatric Service Animals //

Over the past two decades, people with psychiatric illnesses began to use animals for assistance and companionship. Everyone who has had a pet in their lifetime can probably agree that animals are therapeutic. They seem to be able to sense when you are in a bad mood and can quickly turn that around. Do you think that an animal could help out with your mental illness? If you are in the market to get one, or already have an animal but need to register it with your school or housing, there are some things you need to know.

There are three main types of animals that help out with psychiatric illnesses: emotional support animals, psychiatric service animals, and therapy animals. I am going to focus on the first two because therapy animals are generally not owned by people with mental illnesses. They are usually brought into schools, hospitals, and retirement homes by invitation. That leaves us with ESAs and PSAs. Luckily, I have personal experience with both of these types of animals. Let’s start out by reviewing the laws that allow those with mental illnesses to keep these animals.


The Law: Emotional Support Animals vs. Psychiatric Service Animals

According to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), psychiatric service animals can only be dogs or miniature horses. The definition of a service dog is one that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” These animals have public access and are allowed to go anywhere you are. This means you can take them to school, work, and anywhere else dogs typically aren’t allowed. According to the Fair Housing Act, they are allowed to live in places where they aren’t pet-friendly. They are also allowed to fly with you in the main carriage of planes due to the Air Carrier Access Act.

Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to perform tasks for your disability. They can simply provide you comfort. They can also be any type of animal. However, these animals are not allowed public access. They are covered by the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act, allowing you to live with them and take them on planes.

For more detailed information regarding the laws about service animals, please read this article from the ADA itself.


Which One is Right for You?

There is a lot to take into account when deciding between a psychiatric service animal and an emotional support animal. Here are two main questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. Do I need an animal in public places?
  2. Does this animal need to be trained to help me with my illness?

If you said yes to either of these questions, I would recommend a psychiatric service animal.


Psychiatric Service Animals

Service dog //

Me & a future service dog!

I am an intern at a local non-profit service dog organization that specializes in training psychiatric service dogs. These dogs are trained from a young age to perform over 100 tasks that assist those with mental illnesses. These dogs can alert you when you are displaying signs of stress (e.g. biting your nails, scratching your arms), position themselves to provide more space for you, wake you from nightmares, and much more. My organization takes each client’s needs into account and trains the dog especially for them. Due to this, it generally takes two years for a dog to be placed with a client.

Additionally, it is expensive. Organizations like mine spend two years training, feeding, and providing medical care for these dogs. Due to this, they cost between $8,000 to $15,000 (depending on what organization you go to). Unfortunately, this isn’t covered by insurance. There are some organizations out there that can help you raise money for a service dog, but a lot of the financial responsibility does fall on the client.

While it may take a long time and cost a lot to receive a dog, I believe the benefits of the dog outweigh both of those cons. You are granted access to take this dog wherever you go, which can give clients the confidence to leave their home and do things on their own. They are also trained especially for you. These dogs know exactly when you are displaying signs of distress and know how to help.

*You can also train your own dog, but I do not have any experience with this which is why I am focusing on the organizations that provide you with one.


Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals, rabbits, bunnies //

My amazing emotional support rabbits, Aspen & Stan!

ESAs are a lot easier to obtain than PSAs. They can be an animal that you already have and also do not have to be a dog or miniature horse. For example, I am in the process of registering my two rabbits (that I already had) as emotional support animals. One important thing to take note of is that these animals are not specially trained. Yes, my rabbits are great, but they are not trained to alert me to signs of distress like psychiatric service animals. I utilize them when I am having a panic attack by placing one on my chest and petting it. They are also great to have as companions on a day-to-day basis.

There are a lot of misconceptions about ESAs. Please do not fall for scams that make you register them online for hundreds of dollars! This is not necessary! You are only required to provide documentation for your ESA when it comes to housing or airlines. This documentation can be provided by your therapist/psychiatrist and veterinarian.


Do You Qualify for Either?

For psychiatric service animals, this depends greatly on the organization you are applying to. In general, you will need to fill out an application detailing why you need one. You will need to provide your medical history and the organization will often want to speak with your therapist or psychiatrist.

When it comes to emotional support animals, this will depend on where you live. If you attend university and live on-campus, schools will have special forms for you to fill out. This mainly requires a note from your therapist or psychiatrist saying that the animal benefits you and a note from your veterinarian saying your animal is healthy.

In both cases, the main thing you will need is the support of your therapist or psychiatrist.


Other Important Information

You are not required to disclose why you need either an ESA or a PSA, even to your housing! All the letter from your doctor needs to state is that the animal benefits you. It does not have to go into detail how it does or why it does. Under the ADA, you are allowed privacy.

Additionally, your animal is not a machine! They are living, breathing creatures. Even if it is trained, it is not going to perform at its peak 100% of the time. They need time to play just like other animals!

This article is largely based on the experiences I have had with my own university & housing and my internship (both based in Massachusetts). I encourage you to do research about obtaining an ESA or PSA in your area because it may be different from state-to-state.

If you have any further questions, please leave me a comment or email me at!




  • My husband’s dog used to be an emotional service dog (he passed away last year unexpectedly). I never knew there was a difference in types! This is very informative to understand. I am sure the training that goes into the dogs that work with people that have disabilities or sicknesses is quite extensive.

    • Lauren Pepperman

      I’m sorry about your loss! I’m glad you found this informative, thank you for reading!

  • This was a very interesting post. I honestly didn’t know there was a difference between the two.

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you for reading, Jenny!

  • This is so fascinating! I’ve recognized the difference between the two but I didn’t realize the correct names for the distinction. It sounds like you do amazing work!

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you, Kuleigh, that means a lot!

  • the sophia diaries

    all good points! as a reslife student staff, it’s important to make sure you create a space that makes you happy and comfortable 🙂

    • Lauren Pepperman

      So important! Thank you for reading, Sophia!

  • This is really interesting! I never really knew the details about the differences between ESAs and PSAs!

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you for reading, Cameron!

  • This is so interesting and thanks for clarifying the difference between the two. It’s amazing what animals will do for us!!

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you for reading! I know, animals are truly amazing!

  • Very interesting post! I am originally from Ireland where we don’t really have aminals for emotional support so I was very confused when I would see dogs inside public places. But I love it!

    • Lauren Pepperman

      I didn’t even think about how this differs worldwide! Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

  • I’ve never thought to much about this topic so these were really interesting points.

    Grace |

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you for reading, Grace!

  • Laila

    This is such a helpful breakdown, all of these animals are so cute, but the jobs they do are so important!

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you for reading, Laila! Agreed, the pups are always adorable but we have to remember that they’re working!

  • This was so informative! I’ve had students before who have had support animals that unfortunately they didn’t bring to school with them, I think it would benefit them to have them during their stressful school day!

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thank you for reading, Nicholle! Animals can be so beneficial for students in school! I’m assuming theirs did not have public access so they couldn’t bring them 🙁

  • Thank you so much for sharing this! I have golden retriever and I want to register him as an emotional support animal for my mental health. I wish I had known more about this before because our rental agency gave us a huge fuss about having him (even though their ad said we could have a large dog) and he really is my emotional support. I just don’t want them to try to come back and change their minds or anything strange.

    • Lauren Pepperman

      I hope your housing situation works out! If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!

  • Such an interesting read! My roommate is training her dog to be a PSA so she can bring her in to do hospital rounds, love learning more about the difference between the two support animals!

    The Classic Brunette

    • Lauren Pepperman

      Thanks for reading, Sami! That is so exciting, I’m sure she’ll do amazing work with her dog!

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