What are Assistance Animals?

Assistance Animals

What are Assistance Animals? 

Pets are such a vital part of our lives (and families!) these days, that it’s hard to imagine the world without them! Whether you own a sweet Schnauzer, a precious Pomeranian or a bold Blue Russian, it’s probably safe to say they’re a huge part of your world. But did you know that our canine and feline friends are more than just darling companions? Our beloved domesticated pals are also doing amazing things in the world of healthcare. This article will explore the different types of assistance animals that are doing their bit to help those in need, and the differences between them. If you’re new to the world of assistance animals, this article is the perfect place to start!

Assistance Animals: What Are They?

While we’ll go into the different types of assistance animals and what they do later, it is possible to classify them in a broad fashion. Assistance animals are animals that help to support those with a range of different needs, whether those needs are physical, mental or specific to a particular condition. Assistance animals are extremely useful for those that need any kind of help in their daily lives, for a range of different reasons. 

Different Types of Assistance Animals

Assistance animals is a broad term for a range of different animals that assist individuals. These furry helpers range from highly trained animals, specifically taught to assist with complex tasks, to emotional support animals, who provide their owners with generalized support for mental health issues. Let’s look at the differences between the various types of assistance animals. 

Service Animals 

Service animals are the most highly trained animals in the assistance animal category. Service animals are trained to help with a set of tasks for a condition that an individual is living and requires help with. Often, these conditions are serious, or even life threatening. There are a multitude of different service animals that are available, although probably the most well-known of these are guide dogs, who assist the vision impaired. Some other types of service animals include:

  • Hearing dogs
  • Mobility assistance dogs
  • Diabetic alert dogs
  • Seizure alert dogs
  • Seizure response dogs
  • Psychiatric service dogs
  • Autism support dogs
  • FASD service dogs
  • Allergy detection dogs

Honestly, who knew there were so many amazing pups (and occasionally miniature horses!) out there doing such hard work! Service dogs are in a special category under assistance animals, as due to the serious nature of their work, by law they are permitted to accompany their owner at all times. This means that no private property has the power to refuse access to a service animal. The law that covers service animals is known as the American Disability Act (ADA), and ensures that those with disabilities have access to their specially trained animals at all times. This differs from the laws which cover other assistance animals, which we will go into more detail about below.

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional support animals are a type of assistance animal with a different function to service animals. While service animals are trained for very specific tasks, the role of emotional support animals is to provide their owners with generalized emotional support for various mental health conditions (learn more). Some of the most common mental health issues that see patients prescribed an emotional support animal include:

  • Alcohol/Substance Dependence
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Adult Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD/ADD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating Disorders
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Postpartum Depression
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder 
  • Social Anxiety Phobia

An emotional support animal is prescribed by a therapist for a patient who is experiencing one or more of these conditions, as part of their treatment plan. Technically, any type of animal can be considered as an ESA, however the most common (and practical) are cats, dogs and occasionally small rodents such as rabbits. The ADA does not cover emotional support animals, so their ability to accompany their owner is more restricted than service animals. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) allows ESAs to live with their owners in any accommodation regardless of pet policy, while the Aircraft Carrier Access Act (ACA) allows owners to travel with their pets, subject to airline policy. 

While service animals are highly trained, with the process taking weeks or months to complete, ESAs don’t require such training. This means that any pet can become an ESA. This makes emotional support animals a more accessible form of assistance animal for less severe health complaints. 

Therapy Animals 

Another category of assistance animal are therapy animals. Animal assisted therapy is growing in popularity, with successes stemming from its focus on using animals to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. Usually, therapy animals are used under the supervision of a licensed mental health professionals, as part of an intervention or complimentary therapy. A good example of how therapy animals are used is in an institutional setting, such as a prison or nursing home. In these cases, therapy animals can help to boost happiness, health, assist in developing empathy skills and even help to nurture life skills. 

Assistance animals are a valuable tool for a large proportion of the population that suffers from physical and mental health problems. Without these animals, many would be left vulnerable, and lose their independence completely. While many people are uninformed of the subtle differences between assistance animals, it’s important to understand them, as it helps to build a culture of respect and understanding around mental and physical disabilities and health problems. Share your new knowledge with your friends about assistance animals, and you can help to build a culture of diversity and respect—while also showing your admiration for the awesome work our cute furry friends do!