What You Need to Know About Traveling With Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals

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INSIDER SECRET: Did you know? Service dog owners may not be charged any extra fees for having a service dog. So, your favorite hotel can’t charge you pet fees as a service animal is not a pet.

As of late, emotional support and service animals have become an extremely hot topic. There have been many stories of people traveling with animals, and things went awry. We all want our furry friends to come with us on our adventures, but what are the guidelines for service animals? And are emotional support animals the same thing?

This subject is extremely important to me as I got to witness the power of service animals first hand. My wife and I raised & trained a Labrador Retriever named Duke for a non-profit in Utah called Labs For Liberty. Their mission is “to acknowledge, honor, and empower members of United States Special Operation Forces by providing service dogs for PTSD and physical needs.”

If you want to know a specific airline’s rules regarding traveling with pets, check out our guide to pet-friendly airlines.

Service and emotional support animals can provide lots of comforts and help to those with issues like PTSD and physical limitations. (Photo courtesy of SasaStock/Shutterstock)

Traveling With Emotional Support Animals or Service Animals

Now that our work has been completed with Duke (he is now serving his veteran), helping travelers understand these different types of animals is extremely important to me.

What Is a Service Animal?

According to the American Disability Act National Network, “A service animal is any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

In short, a service animal is specially trained to do one or more tasks to benefit its owner.

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals (ESAs) help treat mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, or phobias. There is a long list of animals that could qualify as ESAs.  However, a doctors note is necessary to identify an animal as an ESA. These are typically the animals that make the headlines when they’re kicked off a flight.

This can be a bit convoluted as mental illnesses like depression are considered disabilities.

Where Can You Take a Service Animal/ESA?

Service animals and their owners have a legal right to enter any building or business, except for places of worship that do not believe in pet ownership. Along with this, service dog owners may not be charged any extra fees for having a service dog. For example, your favorite hotel cannot charge you pet fees as a service animal is not a pet.

ESAs do not have the same right as service animals. ESAs are able to be turned away by any place of business. Also, a place of business has the right to ask you to leave if the animal is being disruptive, threatening, or destructive.

What Documentation Do You Need?

This is unfortunately where the gray area comes into play.

I will use a real-life example. I was at a local restaurant in Salt Lake City while I was training Duke when I was approached by an associate. I was asked to see a doctor’s note for Duke. This is actually against federal law. Business owners are allowed to only ask the following questions for service animals:

Is this animal required because of a disability?  (Yes or No) What work or task has this animal been trained to perform?

Outside of these two questions, a business may not ask to see documentation, require that an animal wear a service vest or any other qualifiers. However, to avoid issues, it is always best to have the animal wear an identifier such as a vest.

This Is Duke as a puppy! The service vest isn’t necessary, but it helps to avoid questions, confrontation, and distractions for a working animal. (Photo courtesy of the author)

However, while flying, your particular airline of choice may require documentation. For example, Delta recently announced changes to their service animal policy as they require you to have proof of health or vaccination 48 hours prior to travel. For an ESA, Delta requires 3 different forms to be filled out and completed 48 hours prior to travel.

Bottom Line

We all love our pets, but as travelers, we need to recognize the difference between pets and working animals. While there will always be people trying to abuse the system, it is important to understand that these animals save lives.

But this topic can be very subjective. If you are interested in having a service animal or emotional support animal, consult your doctor to see if it is the best solution for you.

In the meantime, none of us are in the position to judge whether or not someone needs a service dog or ESA. Next time you see a service animal during your travels, the best suggestion is to smile and go about your day.

If you live in the Salt Lake City area and are interested in donating or training a service dog, check out Labs for Liberty.

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Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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Ali Abdul-Aziz
1 year ago

Consequently there are still some problems here. Food service business owners must allow service animals, but esa’s must be prohibited. States should require identification, period. Legitimate service animals behave around other dogs. I am tired of siting in a restaurant or walking in or out of a place of business and someone’s “esa” slobbers all over me. Too many phony scammers are out there.

Holly A Kemp
1 year ago

This article brought tears to my eyes and a huge smile in my face. Being a survivor of a trauma myself my dog has been a humongous part of my recovery. We had very little trouble of acceptance in our community. The value of these animals is priceless and not only did she strengthen and help me she brought joy to many others. I am so glad to see our world changing and becoming more accepting of change needed to help others and make the world better place. I believe animals are the best example of unconditional love!!!!!

Andrew W
Reply to  Holly A Kemp
1 year ago

Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry to hear that but I’m glad to hear you made it through!

I frequently think…what did we do to deserve dogs?

Thank you so much for sharing your story Holly

Brandon Heeger
1 year ago

Great article. Both are important if the owner has a legitimate need and the appropriate documentation. VERFID Services is about to launch a mobile application that will assist ESA owners, and help business owners limit fraudulent entry.

Andrew W
Reply to  Brandon Heeger
1 year ago

I’ve never heard of that service, thanks for sharing that tip!

Darlene Yablonski
1 year ago

I now have a ESA and have a letter from my therapist. I’m not comfortable out anymore and if my fellow isn’t with me then I require that my dog has to be with me. Before I enter a store I ask if my dog is allowed and the response that I get is yes and thank you for asking. This is a system that should never be abused by anyone who doesn’t actually need these valuable animals in our lives.

Andrew W
Reply to  Darlene Yablonski
1 year ago

Thanks for sharing Darlene. I agree, it’s really a shame that we have people who abuse the system and make it more difficult for everyone else. It brings to mind Stories I’ve read where owners provide a fake “certificate” to prove that they have a service animal, when in fact, there’s no such thing!