At Pets for Patriots, we get calls from service members, veterans, and caregivers requesting our help to secure service dogs.
But when we ask if a well-mannered companion dog or cat would be better, people always asked, “What’s the difference?”
We are so glad you asked. First, a little context.
Wounds seen and unseen
According to the Defense Department, since 2003 more than 46,000 U.S. military personnel have been wounded in action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Anecdotally, huge numbers of veterans with such wounds are not counted in the official Wounded In Action statistics. And criteria for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders like PTSD vary widely.
In the U.S., some estimates believe the invisibly wounded numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
Veterans of prior conflicts have and continue to suffer from these very same afflictions. But it took Iraq and Afghanistan to bring the true scope, nature, and human cost of these types of ailments into sharp relief.
The public today is more aware of PTSD and, to a lesser extent, TBI and other trauma-related afflictions.
Many veterans with PTSD cope with feelings of isolation, depression, anger, heightened sensitivity to loud sounds, fear of crowds or anxiety in social situations in general.
It is therefore unsurprising that attention has turned to the human-animal bond as a way to help people overcome many of the emotional impacts of their conditions.
A companion animal is just another word for a family pet. Think Fido and Fluffy.
We celebrate the extraordinary, innate therapeutic abilities of everyday companion dogs and cats. It is why we focus solely on companion pets to achieve our mission.
Our organization advocates for pets, who – through no faults of their own – are relinquished to shelters with little hope of adoption. They can deliver many wonderful physical and emotional health benefits. However, they have no legal access to places where pets are normally not permitted (for limited exceptions, see “Emotional Support Animals”).
Despite their lack of legal access, companion pets can have life-changing – even life-saving – impacts on peoples’ lives.
Many veterans in our program with PTSD, depression, and other psychological challenges tell us that their adopted companion pets give them a renewed sense of purpose – even a reason to live. They are more able to re-establish healthy relationships with family and friends, and even forge new and positive relationships.
Read some of the many real-life stories of veterans who have experienced the life-altering love of a companion pet.
Service animal – federal law
“A mental or physical condition which substantially limits a major life activity such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.”
The term “service animal” includes a wide range of animals highly trained for specific types of needs, such as signal dogs for the deaf, or seeing eye or guide dogs for the blind.
Federal law does not consider service animals as pets. They are viewed as equipment necessary for disabled people to manage the basic tasks of daily living.
Service animals are protected under the ADA and enjoy broad access to accompany disabled individuals wherever they need to go. This includes public transportation, private places of business, workplaces, residential complexes, and houses of worship.
Service animals are permitted legally to go to environments where pets are not typically permitted.
The ADA neither legally requires service animals to be certified nor has a certification standard. This gives disabled individuals latitude to have their animal trained to address their specific disability. But it invites abuse and diminishes the needs of those with real, serious, and legitimate disabilities.
Federal law prohibits businesses from asking individuals about the nature of their disabilities or demanding documentation for service animals. However, business are permitted to ask if the animal is required because of a disability, and what work or task the animal is trained to perform.
Service animal – training
Most service animals are dogs and are bred for purpose. Standards are high since these animals are called upon to perform fairly complex tasks. They must be able to work in stressful environments such as crowded stores, busy streets, and other environments that are difficult for most pets to endure.
Many dogs fail to graduate from service animal training for a wide variety of reasons.
Dogs are highly trainable, easily accommodated in most living situations, and have a long track record of working with people to perform various complex tasks.
A successful canine candidate must have the right combination of temperament, size, life expectancy, activity level, strength, and other characteristics, depending upon the service for which he is being trained.
Typically, such a dog can cost between $15,000-$20,000, which includes years of evaluation, medical tests and training. These activities occur both before and after being matched and trained with his eventual handler.
Some organizations, like Freedom Service Dogs, select and train shelter dogs. Those that do not meet their strict criteria are adopted out to the public.
But the overwhelming majority of shelter animals lack the attitude and aptitude for service work.
We strongly discourage the adoption of pets for the purpose of training as service animals. Doing so stresses the animal unnecessarily by asking her to perform work for which she is ill suited.
Psychiatric service animal
A psychiatric service animal is a service animal who is trained to assist people who are disabled as a result of mental illness.
Animals trained for this purpose often provide life-saving tasks. These include preventing disoriented people from dangerous situations, bracing someone who is physically unstable from medication, or rousing a person who might sleep through a fire or burglar alarm as a function of being medicated.
Psychiatric service animals may be trained to detect an oncoming anxiety attack and take action to calm their handlers, or help them exit a stressful environment.
Many tasks performed by psychiatric service dogs are similar to those performed by mobility dogs. The only difference is that psychiatric service animals work for someone with an emotional versus a physical disability.
The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners (IAADP) details various tasks that a psychiatric service animal may be trained to perform.
Psychiatric service animals are often confused with Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). But a dog or cat who provides emotional comfort to someone with an emotional disability is not legally recognized as a service animal.
This category of animal is not defined or protected by federal law. However, some states do have laws granting limited accommodation to therapy animals.
A therapy pet benefits people other than her handler, who is typically her guardian as well. Think of dogs or cats who visits hospitals and nursing homes to comfort the sick.
Reading therapy dogs have become increasingly popular in schools and libraries to act as ‘literacy mentors’ for children. More recently courthouse dogs provide comfort to crime victims when they testify.
Since therapy animals are not protected under the ADA there are no federal laws requiring that they be given access to places where pets are typically not permitted. And, unlike a service animal, a therapy animal is considered a pet.
Emotional support animal
These types of pets are perhaps the most ambiguous as far as federal law is concerned. They are used by people experiencing mental illness or psychological distress, and provide comfort just by their mere presence.
Emotional support animals – known as ESAs – are not required by law to be trained to perform any particular task. They are companion pets whose mere presence is assistive to an individual with a psychological disability.
These animals are not accorded legal status. However, the federal Fair Housing Act requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations for individuals who are prescribed an ESA to have such a pet in their dwelling. They may not discriminate based upon the animal’s breed, size, weight, or other physical characteristic.
Previously, ESAs were permitted to fly in the cabin of commercial aircraft outside of their kennels and without extra fees. However, the Department of Transportation has issued a new ruling effective January 1, 2021. Airlines are no longer required to extend to ESAs the same permissions granted to service animals.
An assistance animal a term some people use to describe a service animal who performs or assists with physical tasks of daily life, such as picking up items, opening and closing doors or pulling wheelchairs.
While the ADA legally defines the term ‘service animal,’ some people and organizations use the term ‘assistance animal’ interchangeably. Others use the term in reference to any animal who helps an individual with a physical or emotional disability.
However, the term ‘assistance animal’ has no specific legal meaning and is not referenced in federal law pertaining to service animals. It is a generic term with no agreed-upon meaning and does not carry the force of law.
See our resources page for more information about service animal organizations and ESAs.