Health Insurance

Like you might expect, it takes a lot of specialized training to turn an everyday dog into one that can help people with disabilities get around. The cost of a fully trained service animal regularly reaches $20,000 or more, depending on the type of service the animal provides.

Fortunately, a variety of organizations provide service animals at little to no cost to the people who need them most. And while health insurance generally doesn't cover the expense of a service animal, there are other ways for people who would benefit to reduce the cost of owning one.

Note: Starting in 2011, the main type of animal that's legally recognized as a service animal is a dog. Everything we cover in this piece pertains specifically to service dogs.

Key findings:

How much does a service animal cost to get?

While training a service dog always requires months of expensive training (whether done by a professional or on your own), what you'll end up paying out of pocket largely depends on the type of service you need your animal to perform. There are nonprofit organizations nationwide that provide service animals to people with disabilities, often at little to no cost to the handler (the person who will work with the animal). It's entirely possible you could receive your service animal for only a few hundred dollars or less — even including weeks of training on how to work effectively with your new partner.

However, these organizations typically specialize in providing a specific kind of service animal, and some service animal types are more commonly trained than others. Animals that act as a guide for someone with visual impairment or blindness, or provide mobility assistance (opening doors and picking up and carrying things) are the most common.

These organizations also have fairly strict eligibility requirements. For instance, The Seeing Eye, one of the nation's largest service animal organizations, requires that applicants are at least 16, are active enough to benefit from having a guide dog and are able to care for the animal, among other things. Due to high demand, you'll also likely end up waiting several months between being deemed eligible and meeting your dog.

There are few groups that specialize in training dogs to respond to things like diabetes or psychological conditions like PTSD. As a result, if you need a service dog to help with one of these conditions, you're more likely to have to pay for the cost to train the dog yourself.

Where can you get a service animal?

There are three main ways people with disabilities can get a service animal:

  • Receive it directly from an organization
  • Hire a professional
  • Train it yourself

Surprisingly, receiving a fully trained service dog from an established organization is often the most cost-effective option, even if the group does not fully subsidize the cost of buying and training the animal. This is because the dog will be trained "full-time" in an organized environment from the moment it's old enough to be trained.

Furthermore, if you receive a fully trained dog from an established organization, you have a much better sense of what you're getting. When you meet your service animal, it will already be fully trained. If it turns out that you and your service dog are not a good fit, the program will likely pair you with a replacement animal. If you want to train a dog yourself, you're responsible for it no matter what, even if it proves unsuitable to be a service dog.

For people who get a service animal from a major organization, you'll likely work with the group's staff over a period of weeks to get to know your animal and learn how to use your service animal most effectively. After your training period, handlers can also receive ongoing training and consultation if they need it.

Other ways to pay for a service animal

Unfortunately, if you're faced with the full $20,000-plus bill to buy and train a service animal, the cost to acquire a service animal is almost never covered by health insurance.

One bright spot is that you can generally use pre-tax money from your flexible spending account or health savings account (FSA or HSA) through your health insurance, if you have one. Just know that you'll need a letter of medical necessity to qualify.

There are also a variety of groups that provide funding for people to afford service animals, like Petco Foundation.

Ultimately, many people who can't afford the full price of a service animal look to community fundraising like GoFundMe to pay for their service animal.

How much does it cost to own a service animal?

After you're done with the initial purchase or training of your service animal, the costs to own it are roughly the same as if the animal were a regular pet. For a dog, this would include food, treats, veterinary visits and grooming, among other things.

The only additional costs you might incur beyond what's typical for a pet is specialized equipment, like a service dog harness, or additional training. You can use FSA/HSA money to pay for these expenses, though it's less likely you can use that money for typical pet expenses like grooming or treats.

Pet insurance for service animals

If you depend on your service animal as part of your day-to-day life, you might consider getting pet insurance. The good news is that for normal coverage, service animals don't cost any more than typical pets. Pet insurance costs about $47.20 per month for dogs, including treatment for both illnesses and injuries. However, this cost can be impacted by your dog's breed, so you may end up paying more or less.

Additionally, keep in mind that most pet insurance plans will not cover the full cost to replace your service animal — they'll only cover medical expenses.

Service animals vs. emotional support animals

There's an important distinction between a support animal and an emotional support animal. Support animals are trained to perform a specific task because of its handler's disability.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, simply boost their owner's mood by virtue of being there and providing comfort. These animals are not as rigorously trained, and you can often have your own existing pet certified as a support animal without thousands of dollars' worth of classes.

However, owners of emotional support animals receive fewer legal protections under the law. Businesses must allow service animals and their handlers to enter but may deny entry to emotional support animals.

Service animal
Emotional support animal
What they doPerform a specific task in service of a disabilityProvide emotional comfort (not trained in a specific task)
Where they're required to be permittedAny business or public spaceHousing and airplanes (not other businesses)

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.