Service Animals versus Emotional Support Animals

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the leadership teams at several leading pet friendly hotels and I’ve heard the question more and more about service animals, emotional support animals and the grey area in between.  Depending on the direction of the question this can get into a deep legal discussion that I’m the first to admit I’m not qualified to address. It doesn’t need to go there, though, if we look at the definitions of each and use those to address the answers to this topic.

Services animals are working animals that have extensive and expensive training to provide a service in support of their handler. They perform a much-needed service that enables their person to address a disability such as blindness, hearing impairment, seizures, PTSD, autism and more. These amazing creatures are not considered a pet but rather a working animal. They are “on the job” 24 X 7 X 365.  Their handler would not be able to have the accessibility to do certain things without their assistance.  There is a bond beyond belief between the handler and their service dog and they are at their side at all times.  In addition to their specific skill they are also trained to have good manners which include sitting and/or lying at their person’s feet when in public settings, not barking out of control or reacting to distractions.  Please see the American Disabilities Act (ADA) site ( for more specifics on Service Animals.

Emotional Support Animals (ESA) can perform much needed support, as well, but they are our pets. They love us, they calm us, they give us a comfort and confidence that we might not have otherwise. They are also not required to have the level of extensive training as that of a service animal and are not covered by ADA rules.  Depending on the industry (such as airlines) a doctor’s note is often required and that should be renewed annually. Often times ESA certification is simply obtained through online payment for a vest, ID card and certificate which is the topic of much concern among service animal handlers and trainers.  With this ESA “kit” a pet is then granted much of the same access as a service animal. 

The grey area that is happening now is that there isn’t a clear delineation between the roles of Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals. Questions range from why a pet fee can be charged for ESAs but not Service Animals to why holding your ESA on your lap while eating at a bar or restaurant is not acceptable. 

Specific legal rules apply for Service Animals as they are an extension of their handler and perform jobs that enable their person to live a more mobile and accessible life.  Legal, Insurance, Codes & Ordinances and the like are required to adhere to ADA rules for Service Animals. Under ADA rules when it is not obvious what service an animal provides only two questions can be asked:

1) is the dog a service animal because of a disability?

2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

In the case of an Emotional Support Animal, these pets are often well trained but there are no rules requiring that they must be.

As a pet friendly advocate my mission is to encourage and advance pet friendliness to more and more businesses. It is a big step for businesses to welcome furry children.  Businesses want to make it fun and welcoming for their furry guests but there are legalities, city and state codes, insurance implications, costs to make the environment pet safe, clean-up expenses, considerations for other guests that could be fearful/allergic/not pet people/etc.  Each area has to be addressed by the business to make it a successful program. There are real costs involved and most pet parents understand this so a pet fee is a fair ask. 

Explaining what the pet fee covers can help with those pet parents still on the fence but adding value to your pet program can offer a big boost, too.  Welcome bags, treats, water bowls for the rooms, well maintained dog play & walk areas, special menu items, toys and pet necessities in the grab and go stores can go a long way to answering the question of why is there a pet fee.

As a courtesy to businesses, other guests and to other pet parents, as well, it’s also a fair ask that ESAs share the same manners as a Service Animal.  According to the site Q&As “generally, the service dog must stay on the floor, or the person must carry the dog.”  And in restaurants, “seating, food, and drink are provided for customer use only. The ADA gives a person with a disability the right to be accompanied by his or her service animal, but covered entities are not required to allow an animal to sit or be fed at the table.”  In these cases, too, health code rules apply and it’s a courtesy to others who might not share the same pet parenting appreciation.

Service animals must be with their handlers all the time, as well.  This is not the case for ESAs.  If pet parents want to leave their ESA pets in the room alone this, too, can open up additional issues such as anxiety reactions from barking to scratching to accidents.  All very real issues that can increase costs to the hotel that would not necessarily occur if the pet were not left alone in the room. On a side note it is extremely helpful for traveling pet parents to be able to leave their pet children in the room if they need to take care of business, eat, etc. so please consider this option and how you can best accommodate furry children that do need a safe place to stay while mom and/or dad are away.

Understanding the difference between the roles of a Service Animal and Emotional Support Animal and being able to explain that upfront can help to alleviate much of the grey area.  For those with questions, sharing this clarity should answer and resolve their objections.  For those that it doesn’t, perhaps they weren’t the optimum guest in the first place. You as a hospitality business are working hard to do the right things for all your guests while maintaining the standards that your guests expect and the reason they return.

That said, there is a strong chance that ESAs are going to increase especially if businesses choose to NOT roll out the welcome mat for furry guests.  Three things jump out at me:

1) People love their pets and will do whatever it takes to be able to bring their furry children with them anywhere

2) if more places are pet friendly there will be less need for ESA kits and leave less room for confusion around Service Animal versus ESA

3) businesses have a tremendous opportunity to embrace this space, win over new guests and patrons and enjoy the benefits and new revenue streams that welcoming furry guests can bring.

Copyright © 2017 Karen Bartoszek

Karen Bartoszek