Service animals and emotional support animals are not the same thing, despite their titles sounding sort of similar. A service animal is one that has been professionally trained to perform a specific task, like a guide dog helping a blind person to navigate or a mobility assistance dog that helps people with physical injuries perform daily tasks.
An emotional support animal is usually recommended by a therapist or GP to help with mental heath issues. The animals receive no formal training and aren’t required to assist with any specific jobs or tasks in order to help their owner go about their daily lives. Instead, an emotional support animal is there to provide comfort, affection and constant companionship to a person with a physiological or emotional disability, such as anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder.
While a service animal is more than likely to be a dog, an emotional support animal can be any domesticated animal of any age, ranging from a young puppy or kitten to an older rescue animal. The only recommendation is that you find an animal that can behave in public spaces and interact well with others. This is due to the fact that they do not need to carry out any tasks for their owner, they are simply providing companionship and comfort by being present.
In the UK there is no official register for emotional support animals, although there are several websites offering this service. The only certification you currently need is an ESA letter written by a licensed mental health professional. It’s important to note that in the UK, emotional support animals do not have the same legal rights as service animals so you’ll need to check with each business separately if you plan to take your emotional support animal out to the shops or to a restaurant with you. Businesses are legally allowed to deny access based on health and safety concerns.
When it comes to travelling, the rules will vary depending on your destination and your chosen airline carrier. It is always best to check before you book as it will depend on your airline’s company policy and individual discretion. Taking an emotional support animal on board a plane is much more common in the US where they are recognised and have more legal rights than in the UK. In 2018, American Airlines reported a 75% increase in requests to travel with “support pets”.