What is the difference between therapy animals and emotional support animals?

According to the American Kennel Club, a therapy animal is not assigned to a specific owner. They go around to places such as schools, hospitals, retirement homes and other similar facilities to provide love and comfort to the people there who need it, often those with disabilities. They are trained to be unfazed by foreign environments, people and noises and maintain a calm demeanor.

Animal companion with their owner.

Animal companion with their owner. Photo credit: Kenzie Fox

Therapy animals are not limited to dogs and cats but more obscure animals as well.

Sara Evans is a horse owner in Prescott, Arizona. She has been working with horses for the past three years and now has horses of her own. Evans is training her miniature horse Piper as a therapy animal for retirement and nursing homes.

Sara Evans sitting with her mini horse Piper.

Sara Evans sitting with her mini horse Piper. Photo credit: Sara Evans

According to Evans, the first step in training Piper has been teaching her ground manners.

“Bringing her around people and getting her used to people and being touched and pet all over,” Evans said.

After training her in ground manners, Evans plans to take Piper to locations such as Home Depot and Tractor Supply to train Piper to be inside buildings in new environments and with unfamiliar people. Once Piper has enough experience in those environments, Evans will begin taking her to retirement and nursing homes for animal therapy.

“The connection between a horse and a human is … so special,” Evans said. “They are so fun to work with and be around.”

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal assigned to a specific person and is trained to assist them with their personal needs. Those needs are often associated with psychological or emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and loneliness. The owner must be diagnosed with a disorder and be prescribed an ESA for the animal to be considered an official support animal.

A student at BYU-Idaho, who prefers to stay anonymous, decided to get an ESA cat for herself when she started experiencing severe panic attacks. Her family’s dog would help calm her down when the panic attacks occurred, but eventually, she and her family decided it would be best to get her an ESA.

She tried out a few dogs at first, but none of them satisfied her needs, so her dad suggested they try cats instead. They went to the pound to look at cats and she said the first one was the right one.

“It was like love at first sight,” she said. “He just knew I needed him.”

BYU-Idaho student's ESA cat Bear.

BYU-Idaho student's ESA cat Bear. Photo credit: Kenzie Fox

Since then, her cat has been acting as her support and comfort whenever she needs it.

“Having him as a roommate and knowing he’s always for sure going to be my roommate helps me a lot,” she said. “When I have problems, at least I’ll have him.”

Bear playing with tinsel.

Bear playing with tinsel. Photo credit: Kenzie Fox

Bear playing with tinsel.

Bear playing with tinsel. Photo credit: Kenzie Fox

The one thing that this student thinks is a downside to ESAs is that they are often misused.

“I think that people need to … try to have training with animals at least to a certain degree before bringing them (here), she said. “Roommates… will have to deal with getting chewed up stuff … barking … scratching up furniture or something like that because (the animals) aren’t trained. (It) is taken advantage of … where instead of actually having it as an ESA, an emotional support animal, to help with something that you can’t do yourself, it is more of ‘oh, I want to have my pet up here, so I’m gonna get it as an ESA.'”