Cats can be very helpful to people with disabilities. They are smart, agile, and capable of being trained to do useful things. Cats are also capable of providing amazing emotional support for their owners. In the eyes of the law, there are even some protections for the cats that provide services for people with disabilities, but it is important to know the legal differences between the different types of services that cats can provide.
Service Animals for People with Disabilities
A service animal is not a pet, but rather it is an animal that is trained to perform at least one specific task for its owner. These animals go through rigorous training so that they can truly assist people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the rights of people with disabilities and their service animals. The ADA:
- Allows service animals access to all public buildings (including hospitals)
- Allows service animals to fly for free on airplanes with their owner
- Requires that service animals be allowed to inhabit any home that the owner would otherwise be allowed to live in
- Does not require proof of the animal’s training or special garb is needed for service animals -even if the owner’s disability is not obvious.
Please Note: The ADA legislation does not require service animals or emotional support animals to be “registered.” There are many websites out there that sell service animal registration without any kind of proof that the animal is indeed a service animal. These sites sell service animal vests, harnesses, leashes, etc and only end up helping more people to abuse the system and make things harder for people with disabilities who have real service animals.
Why Cats Can Not Legally Be Service Animals
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have abused the policies afforded to people with disabilities by claiming that a pet is a service animal when it is not. This abuse resulted in changes in the ADA’s definitions of “service animal.” Now dogs are the only species that are recognized and protected by the ADA as service animals. Miniature horses may also gain their status back.
The lack of legal recognition doesn’t mean that cats can not provide services people with disabilities. People with disabilities may choose any species of animal they wish to help them in their daily lives, however, those animals can be turned away from entering public buildings with their owners. Cats have been known to help people with autism, seizure disorders, psychiatric illnesses, and more. Who knows? Maybe one day we will see cats make it back under the ADA’s protection as service animals.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are different than service animals. They are protected under the ADA legislation, but not to the same extent as service animals. Here are a few of the ways that they differ:
Emotional support animals do not have to have any specific training.
- Any species of animal, including cats, can be an emotional support animal.
- Public businesses do not have to allow emotional support animals to enter their buildings.
- People with disabilities can be required to show proof of their need for an emotional support animal (like a prescription for the animal) in order to get an exception to a “no pets” rule in housing. The disability itself never has to be divulged.
- Emotional support animals can still fly for free on airlines, but proof of the need for emotional support animal can be required by the airline. Also, these animals are subject to the airline’s usual pet policy, so larger/disruptive emotional support animals may be not be allowed to ride in the cabin.
Cats are fantastic for emotional support. As a person suffering from bipolar disorder, I’ve always considered my cats to be emotional support animals (though I’ve never actually gotten the documentation). In the throws of depression, Cinco and Manna can help keep me in touch with reality. They notice even the most subtle changes in my moods. When I’m depressed, I tend to withdraw from socialization and I don’t want to talk about it. My cats are perfectly okay with that situation. They will cuddle up to me with no judgments and no annoying “just smile already” comments. They just purr and let me cry, which is usually all I need. Many other depression sufferers that I’ve spoken to would say the same things about their cats.
Therapy animals are usually pets that are trained to be comfortable visiting people in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities. Dogs, cats, and rabbits are frequently used as therapy animals. In some cases, wild animals like dolphins and llamas are used and people with disabilities are brought to them. The service the animal provides is just to be there and interact normally with the patients.
Therapy animals are not protected under the ADA legislation. There are no laws requiring that therapy animals have any particular training or licensing. However, there are some great organizations (Pet Partners, Love on a Leash, etc) out there that provide training and certification for therapy animals. Facilities that are aware of these organizations and the criteria they use for certification can use a person’s membership in one of these organizations as proof of reputable service.
Animal-assisted therapy is becoming more and more common. Anecdotal accounts find it to be highly beneficial. Not much research has been done yet to prove the extent of the benefits for people with disabilities, but so far the results are very positive. One study found that animal-assisted therapy significantly reduced anxiety in patients hospitalized with various psychiatric disorders. Other studies show that therapy animals were able to reduce loneliness, blood pressure, heart rate, and depression for residents of nursing homes and increase life satisfaction.