Service, Therapy, and Emotional Support Animals: Helping Humans in Evolving Ways
By Steph Selice
Fostering the Human-Animal Bond – research on the human-animal bond is booming. Scientific data confirm that being with a companion animal helps keep humans healthy and happy. Many species of pets give unconditional love, encourage touch and physical expressions of affection, and bolster their human’s emotional and physical health. Our dynamic relationships with pets even help us learn to love and be loved in return, promoting empathy and friendship with other humans.
In recent years, people have found new ways to encourage caring relationships with animals that foster good health, even for humans who don’t or can’t live with pets. Animals are now widely trained to offer us help in therapeutic or supportive ways. Three of these are as service, therapy, or emotional support animals.
Service animals are defined as dogs under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines (https://www.ada.gov/topics/service-animals/), though miniature horses have been exceptions (https://www.ada.gov/resources/service-animals-2010-requirements/#miniature-horses). They are trained to perform specific tasks or work for people identified with a physical, psychiatric, sensory, or intellectual disability under the ADA, the Fair Housing Act, and the Air Carrier Access Act.
These animals are chosen because they are gentle, don’t react randomly in various situations, and stay focused on and attentive to their human’s needs. They include guide animals for people with sight loss and hearing or signal animals for humans with hearing loss. Other service animals help people with autism, seizure disorders, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other psychiatric diagnoses.
Service animals are often trained through an animal service agency or nonprofit organization, though there are no official U.S. licensing requirements. State and local governments may ask for voluntary registration of service animals. Through U.S. federal regulation, they are allowed in all public areas and in all housing, even where other animals aren’t.
The right of service animals to public access includes transport. Flight access for service dogs (the only animals so designated on U.S. carriers) is mandated under the Air Carrier Access Act, including psychiatric service dogs. Airline regulations for service dogs are updated on the U.S. Department of Transportation website (https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals).
Animals trained to help in therapy can be any species but are often dogs and sometimes cats. They usually live with their human (often their partner in therapy visits), though some live with other families or with animal support groups. Therapy animals visit schools, residences, and clinical settings with their humans, who are sometimes therapists themselves. They offer other people the warmth and love of animal companionship, while promoting the goals of their treatment plans.
Therapy animals are usually trained by professional organizations (https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-train-a-therapy-dog/). They are chosen for their even temperament and love of humans. Besides a gentle and loving nature, therapy animals require extensive training, behavioral assessment, and evaluation by a veterinarian. (Their humans also receive related training.) A therapy animal’s documented annual care may require routine vaccinations, screening for parasites, and other vet care control.
Therapy animals are not federally licensed. There are no uniform U.S. guidelines for their certification, which varies by training organization. Some therapy animals may be identified by wearing a vest, bandana, or other ID, though this is not required.
Unlike service animals, therapy animals do not have the same right of public access under the ADA, including public transport and airline travel. The same rules that apply to pets apply to therapy animals.
Emotional Support Animals
As with therapy animals, emotional support animals can also be any species. To meet a patient’s disability-related need, an emotional support animal must be identified in a valid letter of diagnosis as being medically necessary for that person. This must be written on official state-licensed letterhead from a physician or mental health professional, with license number, type, and date. Because of widespread fraud, professionals advise proceeding with caution (https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2022/11/04/states-struggle-to-curb-fake-emotional-support-animals).
Under ADA, emotional support animals are considered pets, not service animals. Though they may be trained to support a particular human, they are not trained for specific tasks, unlike service animals. They are recognized as necessary for the health and well-being of certain tenants and homeowners under the Fair Housing Act and Rehabilitation Act. Because of this, they must be reasonably accommodated, even in buildings where pets are not allowed.
Since January 2021, U.S. airlines have not been required to allow emotional support animals on board (https://djangobrand.com/blogs/news/new-dot-rules-for-emotional-support-animals). They can fly for a fee as on-board pets or cargo pets on many carriers if they meet flight requirements. Airlines recommend checking with them before booking travel with an emotional support animal.
Helping Us, No Matter What They’re Called
Our pets are members of our families and offer emotional support and therapeutic benefits, whether or not they’re granted official titles. With everything they give us (most of the time by happy accident), it’s not surprising how effective animals can be with professional guidance.
About the Author: Steph volunteered as an adoption counselor at King Street Cats in Alexandria for seven years.
COVID-19 Information About Pets
“What You Should Know about COVID-19 and Pets,” CDC, August 23, 2022
What You Should Know about COVID-19 and Pets | Healthy Pets, Healthy People | CDC
“Current Information About COVID-19 and Pets: Caring for Your Pets with SARS-CoV-2,” American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
“COVID-19: Protect Animals by Planning for Their Care,” AVMA
Selected Metro DC Animal Shelters/Rescues
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria
4101 Eisenhower Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22304
Fairfax County Animal Shelter
4500 West Ox Road
Fairfax, VA 22030
Friends of Rabbits and House Rabbit Sanctuary
P.O. Box 1112
Alexandria, VA 22313
King Street Cats
25 S. Dove Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Rikki’s Refuge Animal Sanctuary
(1300 animals and 22 species on 450 acres)
Kerry Hilliard, Director
P.O. Box 1357
Orange, VA 22960
Visits by appointment