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Navigating the Differences Between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals: Certification and Understanding

In the realm of animal assistance, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals play distinct but equally impactful roles in supporting individuals. However, differentiating between the two and understanding the processes for acquiring proper certification is crucial. Let's explore the differences between ESAs and Service Animals, alongside the steps required to obtain the necessary certifications for both.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals: Understanding the Contrast

Emotional Support Animals provide vital comfort, companionship, and emotional stability to individuals dealing with mental health conditions. Their presence alleviates symptoms of anxiety, depression, and various psychological challenges, offering a source of solace and support. ESAs do not require specialized training to perform specific tasks related to a disability and are not granted the same access rights in public places as Service Animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Service Animals, conversely, undergo rigorous training to perform specialized tasks that directly assist individuals with disabilities. These tasks could range from guiding the visually impaired, alerting the hearing impaired, providing mobility support, or performing other specific functions necessary for their handler's daily life. Service Animals are granted legal rights and are allowed access to public places where pets are typically prohibited under the ADA.

Certification Process for Emotional Support Animals

Certification for an Emotional Support Animal involves obtaining a letter from a licensed mental health professional. This letter serves as documentation stating that the individual requires the presence of an ESA for their emotional well-being. It should include the professional's letterhead, license information, and a statement about the individual's need for an ESA due to a diagnosed mental health condition.

Steps to Certify a Service Animal

Certifying a Service Animal involves a different process, focusing on the animal's training and the specific tasks it performs to assist an individual with a disability. There is no standardized or official certification or registry for Service Animals under the ADA. Instead, the emphasis is on the animal's ability to perform tasks directly related to the handler's disability.

Training a Service Animal typically involves professional training programs or individualized training with a qualified trainer. The handler and the animal must demonstrate that the tasks performed are directly linked to mitigating the individual's disability. The Service Animal should maintain appropriate behavior in public spaces.

Ensuring Proper Certification

When seeking certification for either an ESA or a Service Animal, it's crucial to consult with licensed professionals or organizations familiar with the requirements. For ESAs, obtaining a legitimate letter from a qualified mental health professional is essential. For Service Animals, focus on the training and functionality of the animal rather than obtaining official certification from a specific entity.

However, in California, the laws regarding Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) were governed by regulations that aimed to ensure the legitimate use of ESA letters while preventing abuse or misuse of ESA privileges. These laws were in place to maintain the distinction between ESAs and pets while safeguarding the rights of individuals with mental health conditions.

Some general guidelines and requirements for obtaining an ESA letter in California, which might still apply in 2024, included:

1.    Licensed Mental Health Professional: An ESA letter had to be issued by a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, or therapist. The professional must be licensed to practice in the state of California.

2.    Valid Diagnosis: The ESA letter should include a valid diagnosis of a mental health condition recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The condition should be debilitating enough to substantially limit one or more major life activities.

3.    Need for an ESA: The letter must articulate how the presence of an Emotional Support Animal alleviates the symptoms of the diagnosed mental health condition and how the ESA provides emotional support and therapeutic benefit to the individual.

4.    Letter Specifics: The ESA letter should be on the professional's letterhead, include their license information, and be dated. It should explicitly recommend the need for an ESA for the individual's mental health treatment.

5.    Renewal Period: ESA letters typically had an expiration date and needed renewal, often annually. Renewals were contingent upon the continued need for the ESA based on the individual's mental health condition.

Here is the law taken off the Board of Behavioral Sciences Website:


AB 468 (Friedman, Chapter 168, Statutes of 2021) was recently signed by the Governor and becomes effective on January 1, 2022.  This bill requires all health care practitioners (including Board licensees and registrants) to comply with all of the following if they are providing documentation relating to an individual’s need for an emotional support dog. The healthcare practitioner must:

  1. Have a valid, active license, and include their license effective date, license number, jurisdiction, and type of professional license in the documentation.

  2. Be licensed in the jurisdiction where the documentation is provided (i.e.: where the client is located).

  3. Establish a client-provider relationship with the individual for at least 30 days prior to providing the documentation.

  4. Complete a clinical evaluation of the individual regarding the need for an emotional support dog.

  5. Provide a verbal or written notice to the individual that knowingly or fraudulently representing oneself as the owner or trainer of any dog licensed, qualified, or identified as a guide, signal, or service dog is a misdemeanor violation of Penal Code section 365.7.

Any lack compliance with those requirements is a violation and subjects a health care practitioner to discipline from their licensing board. 

What is an emotional support dog?

The bill defines an “emotional support dog” as a dog that provides emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to an individual with a disability, and that does not need to be trained or certified.

Are associates also permitted to issue this documentation?

Yes.  Here, “health care practitioner” means a person who is licensed pursuant to Division 2 of the Business and Professions Code (BPC), and BPC section 23.8 states that “licensee” includes registrants (associates).  Therefore, the law as stated above applies to associates as well.

How many times must I meet with my client before issuing the documentation?

The new law states that the health care practitioner must not provide the documentation until a client-provider relationship has been established for at least 30 days.  It does not prescribe a specific number of meetings.

Code sections: Health and Safety Code sections 122318 and 122319.5(b)

However, state laws and regulations may change over time, and new provisions or modifications might have been implemented in 2024. It's crucial to consult with a licensed mental health professional or legal advisor for the most current and accurate information regarding ESA laws and obtaining an ESA letter in California in 2024. These professionals can guide individuals through the process while ensuring compliance with the latest regulations.

Remember, it is imperative to adhere to the laws and regulations in your region or country regarding ESAs and Service Animals to ensure proper certification and access rights.


Understanding the differences between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals is vital, as is navigating the distinct certification processes for each. Whether seeking an ESA for emotional support or a Service Animal for disability assistance, consulting with professionals and following legal guidelines is key to obtaining the necessary certifications and ensuring proper access rights and accommodations for both the handler and the animal.

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