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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.