Many people tend to use the phrases Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Service Animals interchangeably. However, it’s important to recognize that these two types of animals have different definitions. While both ESAs and trained service animals can provide emotional support and comfort, they have notable differences.

Recently, USA Today reported that a grocery store chain sparked controversy regarding ESAs vs. service dogs. They put out large signs reminding customers that all non-service animals are not allowed in stores. Some pointed out that a way around the policy was by mentioning emotional support animals. However, emotional support animals are not allowed in the stores.

Emotional Support Animal vs. Service Dogs

As defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are dogs that undergo specialized training to perform tasks for people with disabilities. These tasks include guiding people with visual impairments, alerting those who are deaf, assisting in wheelchair mobility, and ensuring the safety of someone having a seizure. As well as reminding people with mental health conditions to take their prescribed medications, providing comfort to people experiencing anxiety attacks due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other designated responsibilities. It’s important to emphasize that service animals are designated for work-related purposes and are not considered pets.

Under the ADA regulations, state, and local governments, as well as businesses and nonprofit organizations serving the public, are generally required to permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of their facilities where public access is allowed. For instance, in a hospital setting, excluding a service animal from areas like patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms is considered inappropriate. However, there may be situations where excluding a service animal from places like operating rooms or burn units is considered appropriate, particularly if the animal’s presence could compromise a sterile environment.

Expert Insights

Shannon Walker, a dog expert, a service dog trainer, and CEO & Founder of Northwest Battle Buddies, a nonprofit providing service dogs to veterans with PTSD, offered her expert perspective.

According to her, the law typically doesn’t grant Emotional Support Animals the same level of protection. While they can be a valuable part of treatment and offer real therapeutic benefits to their owners, there’s legal leeway to prohibit them from entering many public spaces.

Walker pointed out that there are areas where the protections afforded to service animals might also apply to Emotional Support Animals, like in housing and employment scenarios. In such instances, ESAs could qualify as a “reasonable accommodation” for people with disabilities. She illustrated this with an example: if someone with the documented necessity for an Emotional Support Animal seeks to reside in a pet-restricted apartment, they might be allowed to have their pet due to the accommodation.

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