What is the difference between a companion pet and a service animal?

At Pets for Patriots, we get calls from service members, veterans and their caregivers requesting our help to secure service dogs, usually for PTSD. But when we ask if the individual would be better served by a well-mannered companion dog or cat, we’re always asked, “What’s the difference?”

We’re so glad you asked. First, a little context. iStock_000010044832XSmall

According to the Defense Department, more than 46,000 U.S. military personnel have been wounded in action in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since March, 2003. The incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), depression and other psychologically-related conditions has led to a great deal of discussion of what are being called the “invisible wounds” of war. Anecdotally, huge numbers of veterans with such wounds are not counted in the official WIA (wounded in action) statistics, and criteria for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders like PTSD vary widely both within and beyond our shores. In the U.S., some estimates believe the walking, yet invisibly wounded number in the hundreds of thousands.

Veterans of prior conflicts have and continue to suffer from these very same maladies, but it took Iraq and Afghanistan to bring the true scope, nature and human cost of these types of ailments into sharp relief – even though the Veterans Administration’s own statistics cite a higher incidence of PTSD among Vietnam veterans than OIF/OEF veterans.

The public today is more engaged in the discourse surrounding PTSD and, to a lesser extend, 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’s therefore unsurprising that attention has turned to the human-animal bond as a way to help PTSD and other sufferers overcome many of the emotionally-driven impacts of their condition.

While we don’t discount the merits of non-traditional service animals like monkeys or horses, the simple fact is that dogs are most often used for service functions. They’re highly trainable, easily accommodated in most living situations and have a long track record of working with people to perform a wide range of complex tasks.

Companion animal

A companion animal is just another word for a family pet. Think Fido and Fluffy.

At Pets for Patriots, we celebrate the extraordinary, innate therapeutic abilities of the everyday companion dog or cat. We advocate for last-chance pets, who – through no fault of their own – are relinquished to shelters with little hope of adoption. And while they have the capacity to deliver many wonderful physical and emotional health benefits, they have no legal access to places where pets are normally not permitted (for some exceptions, see “Emotional Support Animals”).

Despite their lack of legal access, companion pets can have life-changing – even life-saving – impacts on people, including veterans.

Through companion pet adoption, many veterans in our program coping with PTSD, depression and other psychological challenges tell us that their pets give them a renewed sense of purpose, a reason to live. They are more able to re-establish healthy relationships with family and friends, and even forge new and positive relationships.

Service animal

The federal government defines a service animal as one that is trained specifically to perform tasks on behalf of a disabled individual, and the American Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as follows:

“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 dogs (for the blind). In a key distinction from other types of animals, federal law does not consider these or other service animals pets; they are viewed as equipment necessary for disabled people to manage the basic tasks of daily living. Service dog

Because they are protected under the ADA, service animals are accorded broad access to accompany disabled individuals everywhere they need to go, including on public transportation, in private places of business, workplaces, residential complexes and other environments or situations where pets are not typically permitted. However, the ADA neither legally requires service animals to be certified nor has a certification standard. While this gives disabled individuals latitude to have their animal trained to address their specific disability, it invites abuse and diminishes the needs of those with real, serious and legitimate disabilities.

Most service animals are dogs and are bred for purpose. Performance standards are high and they’re called upon to undertake fairly complex tasks (especially for creatures without opposable thumbs). 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 it’s being trained. Typically, such a dog can cost between $15,000-$20,000, which includes years of evaluation, medical tests and training – both before and after being matched with its eventual handler.

Some organizations, like Freedom Service Dogs, only select and train shelter dogs. Those that end up not meeting the organization’s strict criteria are adopted out to the public.

Assistance animal

An assistance animal is just another term some people use to describe a service animal that 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.

Therapy animal

This category of animal is not defined or protected by federal law, although some states do have laws granting limited accommodation to therapy animals. The most common use of therapy pets is for the benefit of people other than its handler (who may be its owner as well), such as a dog or cat that visits hospitals to comfort the sick. Reading therapy dogs have become increasingly popular in schools and libraries to act as ‘literacy mentors’ for children, and 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. Photo credit Duke Health

Emotional support animal

These types of pets are perhaps the most ambiguous as far as federal law is concerned. They’re used by people experiencing mental illness or psychological distress, and provide comfort just by their mere presence. Typically, they’re not trained for any particular task or function other than to be a well-mannered and calming presence for their owner. Although these animals are not accorded legal status, they are permitted to fly in the cabin of commercial aircraft if an individual is prescribed to have an emotional support animal, sometimes known as an ESA.

Psychiatric service animal

A psychiatric service animal more closely resembles a traditional service animal and refers to animals trained to assist people who are disabled as a result of mental illness. Animals trained for this purpose often provide life-saving tasks, such as preventing disoriented people from dangerous situations, bracing a handler who is physically unstable from medication or rousing a handler who – as a function of being medicated – might sleep through a fire or burglar alarm. Many tasks performed by psychiatric service dogs are similar to those performed by mobility dogs – a type of service animal – the only difference is that these animals work for someone with a psychiatric versus a physical disability.

Psychiatric service animals are often confused with ESAs, but a dog or cat that provides emotional comfort to someone who is not disabled as a result of their mental condition does not qualify as a service animal of any kind.

See our resources page for more information about service animal organizations and ESAs.


  1. I am a Vietnam vet. I use a service dog. When you stop and ask me about my dog, wearing a vest made from my old uniform showing my unit. Please do not pet my dog. Please do not ask me what happened. And please stop beating up on veterans with service dogs. I’m read all to often about how a vets are being attack and beaten up just for having a service dog. This is the same treatment I got back when I return from Vietnam. I call on all military personnel who use SDs. If you are attacked, fight back, hell with injuries. Remember your warriors heritage. Remember the people attacking you are cowards.

    I shall not be attacked again just for being a vet who needs a dog.

  2. I think what is missing in the article in the paragraph on psychiatric service dogs is a mention of the fact that a dog is only a service dog if the handler is legally disabled (meets the ADA definition) and the dog is trained multiple, demonstrable tasks that relate directly to the handler’s needs. Plus clarification that obedience training or providing comfort are not considered tasks.

    I have seen a big push to get service dogs to soldiers, which is great. But I see a lot of doctors and organizations recommend service dogs to people who don’t meet the ADA requirement of being legally disabled and I’ve found that many doctors do not understand the difference between a service dog and an ESA (and often refer to both as therapy dogs, to boot.)

    The othet thin

    • What is lacking in this country is being properly informed. Personally I want to thank you for fighting for us, so we could remain in the life we enjoyed. I have always stood behind our troupes, but I cannot say that for government. I understand why liberals are angry, but they are taking it out on the wrong people. As far as I am concerned you guys should be getting paid like rock stars or pro athletes. You did a job that was asked of you and did it well. There is no place in a civilized society that condones abuse in any form. For these individuals that are hurting Veterans and their Service dogs, they should be punished as if they were attacking the President himself, you should be protected by us. This is a great article and i just want to say, I haven’t’ been in a war, or a criminal, but I have people that don’t care for me because I believe and love Jesus. So don’t let these nasty people get you down and I will pray that God send his angles to protect you and you Service dog. Again Mahalo “Thank You”

    • Stacie Pease says:

      Absolutely right. My dog in an ESA. I have had my coworkers call him a therapy dog. I printed out a page with the differences and explained them. I do have permission to take my ESA to school with me, but not to work. I work for AAFES, but our location is very small and my bosses understand my condition. However, school has a big population with constant new people. My ESA is great at being a buffer between me and them. I do put a vest on him and gave a “do not pet” leash, but that’s after having problems with people respecting my space and trying to play with my dog while he’s wirking. Yes, he’s an ESA, but he picks up on me becoming anxious and tense and he’ll calm me before it escalates. Also, yes, it is exhausting that people ask do much. And, some days, I am not in the frame of mind to be patient or talk.

  3. Stupid phone.

    The othet thing is that the ADA actually changed some of its language from “service animal” to “service dog”, so other animals may not be considered service animals anymore. Exceptions are helper monkeys (in the home, not in public, AFAIK) and guide horses, but that’s it.

    • ADA actually only covers dogs and in some cases miniature horses as Service Animals. They do not even include monkeys at home or (especially) in public.

  4. I am just glad that you are able to get the dogs not matter what the reason is that you need them for. And that they are helping you. You guys deserve it. Dogs can be the best medicine. And thank you for your service.

  5. Carla Polito says:

    Many Vets are returning home to dogs that they already have. These animals may have been left in a foster home or with family or friends. Is there a program or grant for these Vets to get training for these dogs?

  6. Im desparately looking 4 assistance in gettin a Psychiatric Service Dog OR a Service Dog for PTSD & protection & alerts 2 up coming medical condition situations & hazardous situations, ETC. ! ! Hav read all the definitions on different types of service dogs & seems what type I need is combined in2 different catagories & not in just one ! Can anyone please help me? Wud b most grateful 4 any assistance! ! Iv found that what I need falls under 3 different service dog catagories!

  7. Phillip D. Snyder says:

    Can you tell me, how you get a PTSD Service Dog? Also, what these great animals are trained to help with. I am a combat veteran, from Viet-Nam, with severe PTSD. I am truly interested in obtaining a service animal, if at all possible. Any information on this subject would be very much appreciated and helpful to an old Viet-Nam veteran. Thank You, so much in advance.
    Phillip D. Snyder

    • Phillip, thank you for your service.
      Pets for Patriots is not involved in the acquisition or training of service animals. Service animals are specifically trained to perform tasks for their handler (you) that are specific to your disability, whether that is emotional or physical (or both). For example, if you suffer with nightmares the animal may be trained to wake you, lay on your body to comfort you, etc. If you take medication and it makes you drowsy or unable to hear things like the phone or doorbell, the animal can be trained to alert you. The whole idea of a service animal is that it is trained specifically for the person for whom it will be working.

      You can learn more about psychiatric service dog tasks – including for people with PTSD – in this whitepaper: http://www.iaadp.org/psd_tasks.html

      And you can look into organizations that provide service animals for veterans on our resources page: http://petsforpatriots.org/resources/

      We hope this information helpful in your journey to heal!


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