Can I use SSDI benefits to cover the cost of service animals or therapy animals for emotional support?

SSDI for Service AnimalsYes. Generally speaking, you can spend your disability benefit payments as you see fit. This includes the cost involved in keeping a service dog or emotional support animal. The Social Security Administration (SSA) does not restrict how SSDI recipients spend their money. People with a range of disabilities can benefit from the support of a service animal. This includes mental and physical disabilities. 

How You Can Spend SSDI Benefit Payments

To put it simply, the SSA generally does not place limits on SSDI spending. The exception is if an adult beneficiary is incapable of managing their finances. They may be deemed legally incompetent. In that case, a representative payee is required to manage the money for them. That aside, the SSA recommends that SSDI beneficiaries cover basic needs first. 

Basic expenses include:

  • Housing costs, like rent or mortgage
  • Utility payments, like water and electricity
  • Telecommunication services, like telephone and internet
  • Groceries and food, including occasional meals eaten out
  • Transportation costs, like car payments, gas, and bus passes

The SSA may not consider the cost of keeping a service dog as a basic expense. People who benefit from service animals may disagree. Either way, Medicare and Medicaid generally do not insure service dog expenses. So, people on disability may need to spend their SSDI payments to pay for a service animal. 

Differences Between Service and Emotional Support Animals

While they may seem to serve a similar purpose, these terms are not interchangeable. There are important differences between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals. Service dogs are the most common example, but there are other types of support animals, too. The need and acquisition of a support animal can also bolster the strength of a disability claim.

What Is a Service Animal?

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal under Title II and Title III. It states that a service animal, often a service dog, is individually trained to perform specific tasks to benefit a specific individual with a disability. The service animal is not generally helpful to a generic person with disabilities. It is specific to one person.

The service dog is individually trained for this specific purpose. The service animal helps someone with a “physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” A guide dog can help a blind person navigate the world. Support dogs, in tandem with medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help people battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Service dogs can be trained with a heightened ability to recognize psychological episodes. Through specific behaviors and exercises, they can help their person feel safe and better handle their daily symptoms. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) mandates that airlines must allow service dogs into the cabin of a plane. 

What Is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

Whereas service animals receive specific training for a unique individual, emotional support animals (ESAs) do not. The animal may provide emotional support, offering relief to their owner, but they are not specially trained for this purpose. They do not have special training for specific tasks to assist people with disabilities. Through their companionship, though, ESAs can alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and certain phobias. 

Because of this lack of training, many emotional support animals do not meet the ADA definition of service animals. And whereas dogs are the most common type of service animal, emotional support animals can come in a wider variety. While service dogs must be allowed to board an aircraft, emotional support animals do not have the same legal rights. They also do not have the same kind of unlimited access to other public spaces. 

One exception is with the Fair Housing Act (FHA). It states that even buildings that do not allow pets must make “reasonable accommodations” for emotional support animals. They may need an official diagnosis and recommendation letter from a doctor or psychiatrist. Even with this letter, though, the ESA does not automatically gain the same legal rights as a service animal. 

What Are Comfort and Therapy Animals?

The terms “comfort animals” and “therapy animals” are even more general. Service dogs receive training to perform specific tasks for a specific individual. Emotional support animals cater to a single individual, with or without training. Comfort and therapy animals, by contrast, may be offered as support for more than one person.

A therapy dog, for instance, may be used in a clinical setting to help a ward of psychiatric patients. They interact with a wider range of people, and likely not just one individual with a disability. They are often not trained to perform a specific task for a specific individual. Instead, they may have more general training to help several people. 

How Service Animals Support Their People

Service animals can be invaluable to people with a wide range of possible disabilities. Some common examples may include people:

  • Who are blind or have limited eyesight
  • Who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • With a physical disability that limits their mobility
  • Who experience psychiatric episodes
  • On the autism spectrum
  • Who suffer from seizures

In these cases, a support dog may be able to help a blind person navigate the world safely. They can alert deaf individuals to a doorbell. Support dogs can fetch and carry items for people with physical limitations. They can recognize and get help when their handler suffers a seizure or psychiatric episode. 

Paying for Service Animal Expenses

Benefit payments from SSDI can cover several expenses related to keeping a service animal. Given the initial waiting period, many SSDI beneficiaries receive an initial lump sum payment. This covers back pay benefits going back to the onset of their disability. The larger lump sum can be put toward the initial cost of acquiring a service animal.

From there, ensuing disability benefit payments can be put toward the ongoing expenses of keeping a service animal. These include:

  • Food and toy expenses
  • Dietary supplements
  • Grooming costs 
  • Relevant training and classes
  • Support care, including dog walkers and overnight boarding
  • Animal license and other fees
  • Regular veterinary care
  • Other medical costs, like medication for fleas and ticks
  • Miscellaneous expenses, like pet beds
  • Costs to get to or from work with the service animal

Reducing Countable Income Toward SGA Limits

To continue qualifying for SSDI, recipients must not exceed substantial gainful activity (SGA) limits. This is the maximum amount of income someone can earn while still receiving disability benefits. For 2024, the monthly SGA limits are $1,550 for non-blind individuals and $2,590 for statutorily blind individuals. 

People who receive SSDI can continue working a limited amount. In the context of service animal expenses, these can reduce how much income counts toward the SGA calculation. These are called impairment-related work expenses (IRWE). The costs of having a service animal may count as IRWEs. 

If a blind person earns $2,700 per month but spends $300 per month on their guide dog, that would bring their countable income down to $2,400. This puts them below the SGA threshold for blind individuals. Without the IRWE deduction, they would exceed the SGA limit. Allowing an employee to bring their service dog to work is considered a reasonable accommodation required of an employer. 

Disabilities That Qualify for a Service Dog

The SSA does not limit the disabilities that qualify for a service animal. But, the organizations that offer service animals often do have requirements. They typically align with ADA guidelines. The person must have a physical, emotional, or mental disability that substantially limits at least one major life activity. These are tasks essential to a person’s life.

Physical Disabilities

Service animals can support people with many different physical disabilities. A non-exhaustive list of these conditions includes:

  • Blindness or limited vision
  • Deafness or hard of hearing
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Paralysis

Mental Disabilities

Both emotional support animals and service dogs can benefit people with mental disorders and disabilities, too. Examples in this category include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Personality and dissociative disorders
  • Autism spectrum
  • Neurocognitive disorders

Skilled SSDI Lawyers On Your Side

Working through the complex application process can feel overwhelming. There may be a lot of paperwork involved. It can sometimes feel difficult to gain approval for your disability claim. The skilled team of SSDI attorneys at Keefe Disability Law are here to help. Lean on our years of experience handling disability claims just like yours.

The reality is that the SSA initially denies the majority of SSDI applications. We can help you avoid that fate and improve your chances of approval. To do this, we help you gather strong evidence in support of your claim. This includes working with medical experts to get the supporting documentation you need. We’ll make sure you never miss a deadline, and if necessary, we’ll support you throughout the appeals process. Get the SSDI benefits you need and deserve.