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What Are Emotional Support, Therapy, and Working Pets?

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A happy woman smiles at the dog sitting with her on a couch

From canines at work and specially trained service dogs to emotional support animals and therapy pets, there are different terms for working animals who support their humans in some way or another. Discover the unique qualities that distinguish these special dogs and the roles they play in enhancing the lives of those they assist.

Did you know that pets are really good for our health? Discover how they can help improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being from youth into old age!.

Working Animals

Working animals typically refer to dogs or horses who are trained to perform specific tasks. For instance, they may assist with police activities, such as sniffing out explosives, detecting narcotics, or helping out during search-and-rescue efforts.

Our strategic partner The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) is not opposed to all uses of animals for work. In their statement on working animals, they explain that using animals, like a dog or a horse, as a working partner can enhance the bond between humans and animals. However, they are opposed to any practices that might cause pain, injury, or distress to an animal.

Meet K9 Jet

K9 Jet was rescued from an animal shelter and trained to work as a detection dog with police in Missouri. Not long after being sworn in, he helped authorities discover a large amount of narcotics during a traffic stop. His assistance with this drug bust showed that he was a great addition to the team. K9 Jet also does some public service work visiting schools, senior centers, and community events.

Person with a mobility cane is guided by their support dog through a parking lot.

Service Animals

The American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Examples of service dogs include:

  • Guide Dog or Seeing Eye® Dog – Helps blind or visually impaired people navigate their surroundings.
  • Hearing or Signal Dog – Alerts individuals who are deaf or have significant hearing loss to sounds, such as a crying baby, doorbell, oven timer, or smoke alarm.
  • Psychiatric Service Dog – Supports people with issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They might help them if they get disoriented, remind them to take medication, or turn on the lights before they enter a room.
  • Sensory Signal or Social Signal Dog (SSigDOG) – Helps individuals with autism, for instance, by letting them know when they’re engaging in repetitive movements.
  • Seizure Response Dog – Assists those with epilepsy by going for help or standing guard when they have a seizure. Some dogs have been trained to predict seizures and help their person get to a safe space.

The ADA provides federal protections for service animals. For instance, they must be allowed in any government, business, and organizational buildings open to the general public. The ADA limits service animals to dogs, but they recommend that these places make reasonable accommodations for miniature horses who have been trained to help people with disabilities.

Meet Sully

Sully is a loyal service dog who assisted former president George H.W. Bush in the last months of his life. He made his way into the public eye when he was photographed looking mournful at the former President’s funeral. Sully also received an ASPCA Humane Award in 2019 for demonstrating outstanding dedication to President Bush and veterans at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals, also called ESAs, refer to dogs, cats, rabbits, and other animals that offer love and comfort to their person. They can help provide relief for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, PTSD, or other mental or psychiatric issues.

ESAs aren’t considered service animals under the ADA because they’re not trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. They do, however, have some protections under regulations like the Fair Housing Act, which allows ESAs to live in housing with a no-pet policy. Landlords may ask for an ESA letter explaining the need and purpose of the ESA. It’s typically provided by a physician or mental health professional.

There has been skepticism around ESAs, especially since people have claimed that they needed to bring more exotic animals, like pigs, ducks, peacocks, and hedgehogs, with them on a plane as an ESA. Some states have even passed legislation making it illegal to misrepresent a pet as an ESA. But ESAs can provide real value to individuals struggling to function in their daily lives.

Looking for more advice as you prepare for your next adventure? Read up on the latest pet air travel tips.

Meet Beck

Beck is an ESA who has dramatically improved the quality of life for one young woman. She shared her experience with Beck on StoryCorps:

“Before Beck, while taking flights, my anxieties were at an all-time high. I stopped taking vacations and restricted myself to the walls of my home. I didn’t realize how important traveling was for my emotional health until I took my first vacation with Beck.”

The loving presence of an ESA can help people manage stress and reduce their fears of engaging with the world.

How To Register Your Pet as an Emotional Support Animal

You can pay to register an ESA online, but it isn’t necessary. There is also no single official registry for ESAs. However, you may need to certify your pet as an ESA, for instance, to bring them along on a plane. To do so, you’ll need to get an ESA letter, which is typically written by a physician or mental health professional.

Bearded man in wheelchair holds dog in his lap

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are typically dogs, but they can also be cats, birds, horses, guinea pigs, or other animals. They provide comfort and affection to people in various settings, including hospitals, assisted living facilities, hospices, schools, and disaster areas. Like ESAs, therapy animals are not considered service animals, and they do not have protections under the ADA.

Therapy animals have been shown to offer significant benefits to the people they visit. For instance, one study demonstrated the positive effects of therapy dogs on the families of children undergoing cancer treatments. The dogs helped reduce anxiety for both the children and their parents. They also improved communication between parents and doctors, which can lead to better care.

Wondering how to register a pet as a therapy pet? You can look into a reputable therapy animal organization to learn about program requirements and information on registering your pet as a therapy animal.

Meet Winnie

Winnie is a therapy dog with a remarkable story. She was rescued by the ASPCA after Hurricane Maria and adopted by a loving couple in Missouri. With the help of her new pet parents, Winnie earned her certification as a therapy dog and began providing care to others.

She’s since comforted students at a school following a heartbreaking tragedy. Her presence has also given high schoolers much-needed stress relief during their finals. Winnie is a wonderful example of the important work of therapy dogs.

Caring for Animals Who Support Humans

Like any other pet or animal kept in the home, these animals need proper care, including a healthy diet, exercise, and regular veterinary care. They should never be put in a situation that is distressing for them or puts them at risk of getting hurt. And of course, they need lots of love and attention!

Learn more about how pet insurance could help you cover your pet’s eligible veterinary care expenses.

An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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