Service animals can make a real difference in people’s lives. Humans develop special bonds with other species, and animals have certain abilities that allow them to accomplish tasks even better than some people can. For example, in the event of a fire, a service dog could smell smoke long before a human could, giving their owner additional time to get to safety. Horses have the ability to carry an injured or disabled person for miles without getting tired. However, dogs and horses are not the only species that can (and do) work as service animals. But which species can be service animals? Can cats be service animals? And what exactly does a service animal do? Let’s break these questions down to get a better understanding of service animals and the important role they play in our society.
What is a Service Animal?
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” However, the ADA also includes a provision for miniature horses that have been trained to provide assistance to people with disabilities. While this may seem limiting, there are various states and municipalities that provide a broader definition of the term “service animals.” Additionally, it is important to understand the differences (and similarities) between service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals. As stated above, service animals are highly trained animals (generally dogs) that assist people with routine tasks. However, even though they often get lumped into the same category, therapy and emotional support animals are a little different.
Unlike service animals, therapy animals are not trained to carry out specific tasks. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and certain provisions of the ADA, “a therapy animal is a type of animal-assisted intervention…in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings, and may be group or individual in nature.”
In other words, therapy animals are introduced to individuals or groups for various treatment plans. Though it is not a comprehensive list, the following are a few of the most common issues that therapy animals can help address:
- Loss of a loved one
- Learning difficulties
- Anxiety disorders
It is also important to note that therapy treatment is not just limited to dogs. There are numerous species whose behavior and temperament is well-suited for one-on-one or group therapy sessions. The following are just a few species that have been recruited for animal therapy in the past:
- Miniature horses
- Guinea pigs
Since therapy animals do not help their owners or patients with specific tasks, they are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, some hospitals, insurance companies, and regulatory agencies are still willing to recognize therapy animals as long as they are trained.
Emotional Support Animals
Though they are similar to therapy animals, emotional support animals are a little different. Typically, a therapy animal has a handler, and is used in a setting like a nursing home, hospice, or patient’s home to provide support and companionship for set periods of time. These sessions are part of a larger treatment plan set by a doctor. Alternatively, emotional support animals are pets who help serve the psychological and emotional needs of their owner every day. While emotional support animals still need the approval of a healthcare professional, they serve a more holistic purpose.
According to the ADA, “support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Even though some states have laws defining therapy animals, these animals are not limited to working with people with disabilities and therefore are not covered by federal laws protecting the use of service animals.”
However, emotional support animals are recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). This means that housing providers cannot forbid emotional support animals or charge a “pet deposit” as they would with regular pets. While emotional support animals are generally restricted to dogs, cats, and even birds, there are no strict guidelines dictating which species can and cannot be support animals. So, as long as someone can show proof that their pet provides emotional support (sanctioned by a healthcare professional), housing providers, airlines, and many other businesses are not allowed to turn them away.
It is important to note that “emotional support animal” is an official designation recognized by numerous authorities and institutions. Though many people may get emotional support from their pets, this is not enough to qualify them as emotional support animals. The animal must meet certain guidelines, and there is a process for registration. You can learn more about this process on our website.
So, Can Cats Be Service Animals?
In the strictest sense, no, cats cannot be service animals in the United States. This is because the ADA does not recognize cats in its definition of the term. As stated previously, the federal government only classifies dogs (and some miniature horses) that have been trained to assist with particular tasks as service animals.
However, this is still a grey area for several reasons. First, while the ADA sets strict definitions for service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals, these terms often get used interchangeably. Additionally, it could be said that therapy animals and emotional support animals both fall under the umbrella of “service animals” (in the general sense), meaning that cats would qualify. Nonetheless, the federal government does not recognize cats as service animals.
Even though the ADA is very clear that cats cannot be considered as service animals, many pet owners still utilize cats for some of the same tasks that service dogs do on a daily basis. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that cats are just as capable as dogs when it comes to helping with daily tasks. Though there have been far more studies conducted and literature written about dog training, cats are still capable of being trained as well.
What Can Cats Do For The Disabled?
While the law does not recognize service cats, this does not mean that cats cannot help the disabled in an unofficial capacity. Cats can be trained to retrieve items, open doors, move wheelchairs, and even dial 911. However, from an evolutionary standpoint, cats are generally not as receptive to training as dogs. This does not mean that it’s a lost cause, it simply means that cats must have the right temperament for the job and (ideally) a professional animal trainer.
Therapeutic assistance is one of the primary ways that cats can help the disabled. This is primarily due to the special bond that humans and cats can develop. Here are just a few ways that cats can do their part:
- Being a friend – Many people who suffer from a physical disability or mental health problem feel lonely and isolated. They may not be able to leave the house, or my lack the social skills to maintain friendships for the long-term. The stigma against their disability might also prevent them from pursuing a social life. A cat can provide a welcome sense of companionship for these people.
- Giving and receiving affection – When people lack human contact, they can often fall into a depression. Having a cat curl up in your lap or rub up against your leg is a great way to feel a connection with another living thing.
- Reducing stress – Studies show that petting or playing with animals (not just cats) is a great way to reduce stress. The activity reduces the production of cortisol in your body, leading to a short and long-term reduction in stress in many patients.
- Establishing a routine – For people with dementia or similar mental health issues, it is important to stick to a daily routine. A cat is great because they generally do not require as much maintenance as a dog, but still need to be cared for on a daily basis.
- Providing a sense of purpose – In addition to creating a routine for their owner, cats also give people a sense of purpose. This is especially important for people with depression. Taking care of a cat, dog, or other domesticated animal gives people a reason to get up in the morning.
Learn More About Service Animals
While cats are not as receptive to training as dogs, and the law does not recognize them as official service animals, they can still make a huge difference for people in need. Like many animals, cats can develop a special bond with humans. They can be loving, gentle, relaxing, and even helpful around the house.
Do you have a cat that can be registered as a therapy or emotional support animal? The process can be complex, and you may have a lot of questions about legal requirements, veterinary exams, benefits, etc. No matter what information you are looking for, we can help. Consult our website at usserviceanimals.org to find out more!