Opinion: Debunking misunderstandings of emotional support and service animals

While both have their own importance, they’re not the same thing.


Iowa City Animal Services workers check on the progress of a dog trained at the IMCC on Tuesday Oct. 10, 2017. A new program allows inmates at the IMCC volunteer to work with rescued dogs from the shelter as well as providing preliminary training for some service dogs.

Ashley Dawson, Arts Reporter

Service animals and emotional-support animals do not have the same responsibilities, and their titles are not interchangeable.

As somebody who got an emotional-support animal when I was 17 years old and has another one now, I fully understand that — while they are still important and may be vital for some people — they are not service animals.

According to the National Organization on Disability, “the vast majority of service animals are dogs.” While they are still limited, there are other options for service animals. One can have a miniature horse, potbelly pig, or capuchin monkey. Whatever form the creature takes, these service animals go through years of training and owners pay thousands of dollars for them.

Service animals are required to understand and track a disability and be well-behaved in public. Therefore, service animal training requires two main assets; public asset behaviors, and disability-related work and tasks.

The most widely recognized service animals are seeing-eye dogs for those with visual impairments. However, general service animals are individually trained to also help those with epileptic seizures, sensory issues, and physical or mental disabilities. 

Psychiatric-therapy animals, such as those that assist handlers with mental disabilities, are different from emotional-support animals because still require individual training.

Service animals are required to understand and track a disability and be well-behaved in public.

As for those in my situation, basic emotional-support animals require absolutely no training. These animals are used to offer comfort to those who suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. Emotional-support animals are there to cuddle and calm their owners.

To get a domesticated pet registered as an emotional-support animal, one really only has to find a legitimate registration website and fill out personal information, paperwork, and animal information, as well as a small fee of typically less than $100.

Just registering the pet does not, however, immediately mean that this pet can travel or live in pet-free housing. For those additional elements, one needs an emotional-support housing or travel letter. Most licensed mental-health professionals can prescribe an emotional-support animal letter.

In the past, I had a registered ball python snake for my anxiety which I kept in my home. He helped me get through anxiety attacks by wrapping around my arm and lightly constricting to help me ground myself, yet he had no idea that he was helping me. Service animals are fully aware that they are there to help and may be vital to their owner’s life.

Now, I have a kitten who lays on my chest or legs, which also helps with my anxiety in the same manner, yet she still has no idea that she is helping me, and she is not vital to me. 

Emotional-support animals are not essential like service animals are, but they can definitely be helpful in times of stress or mental-health struggles.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.