According to the informational website for the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is
(A)ny dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.
That seems to conclude the business of asking whether cats can be service animals before we even got started. There’s precious little wiggle room when the definition restricts potential service animals to dogs right away. However, this definition of service animals has to do with those charged with performing specific, physically demanding tasks. These include a range of jobs that require training in order to assist people with physical limitations with vital daily tasks.
The wording is specific to service animals such as guide dogs for the visually impaired, those who can assist the hearing impaired, and those who can retrieve objects for people with mobility issues. It doesn’t require a great deal of imagination to understand why cats would be excluded from performing duties of these kinds. Where the ADA is concerned, special training and certification are necessary for any animal to be considered a service animal.
But cats are awesome!
Yes, cats are awesome and can be helpful in other ways, as long as you don’t depend on them to help you cross at a busy intersection or to bring your medication at noon. Cats, ferrets, pigs, and even miniature horses perform crucial roles for people as therapy animals. There are fine distinctions between service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals, and the ADA addresses that as well:
(T)he provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship are not considered work or tasks for purposes of the definition of a service animal.
Emotional support is just as important to people suffering from mental health issues as physical support is for people with the kinds of disabilities that the ADA outlines. As long as we’re trying to keep our terminology precise, there are further distinctions between therapy animals and emotional support animals. Cats can be either.
Cats as therapy and emotional support animals
Cats and other domestic creatures serve people with a wide range of issues. The ones that pop to mind first might be anxiety or depression, but the terms “therapy animal” and “emotional support animal” have a scope much broader than mental health alone. Where service animals and emotional support animals may be with the humans they serve around the clock, therapy animals tend to have a more ephemeral presence in the lives of the people they help. Let’s look at the two terms more closely and see where cats fit in.
What is a therapy cat?
Therapy cats tend to visit, rather than live with, the people they serve. To qualify, a cat must be registered, travel easily, shed minimally and be well socialized to interact calmly with a variety of people. The National Service Animal Registry enumerates three major categories for therapy animals related to the tasks they perform, which can be physical or emotional, or a combination thereof, in nature. These are:
- Animal assisted therapyCats can be useful to people undergoing physical therapy. For people recovering from a variety of surgeries, or trying to regain fine motor control skills in their arms or hands, the simple act of handling, holding or petting a cat can be an important part of the rehab process.
- Facility therapy“Facility” here refers to any location where a therapy cat provides support for patients. This can be an assisted-living facility as well as a care or nursing home. Cats and other therapy animals live and have a trained handler on site, where they provide comfort, support and simple presence to occupy the time of residents.
- Therapeutic visitationAccording to the NSAR, this is the most common kind of therapy animal. They are typically pets who have permanent homes, whose owners transport them to a vast array of sites where they can play and interact with people for a limited period of time. These animals visit rehabilitation centers, hospitals, nursing homes and even detention facilities.
What is an emotional support cat?
Unlike therapy animals, which usually function as time-limited visitors before returning to their own forever homes, emotional support animals live with the people they help. An emotional support cat basically amounts to a prescription pet, which is kind of amazing. Unless a patient has a particularly troublesome cat allergy, this might be the only prescribed palliative whose side effects may include missing the litter box.
In a case of common knowledge according easily with scientific research, it has long been accepted that regular interaction with pets offers very real mental-health benefits. Even watching cat videos has a quantifiable impact on anxiety and depression, but nothing beats direct contact. Like therapy animals, the cast of potential emotional support animals is much more open-ended than for service animals.
Really, any animal at all, provided it can mitigate rather than exacerbate the issue at hand, can be granted emotional support animal status. Further distinguishing them from service and therapy animals, emotional support animals do not require special training or certification to play their part.
Unlike service animals or therapy animals, emotional support animals, including cats, can be pets that people already own. For the purposes of travel and being in other places that don’t tend to allow pets, emotional support animals should be docile in public and will require a form, prescription or letter from a licensed mental-health professional.
Do you have experience with “service” cats?
As with any health-care service, access to certified therapy cats depends heavily on whether a person can afford to be at or live in a participating facility. The same is true, though to a more limited degree, for emotional support animals, because they require at least one consultation with and documentation from a mental-health practitioner. Anyone who has dealt with recovery or rehabilitation from physical, mental or emotional trauma knows that the process is difficult in the best of times, and any strategy for coping can be worth a try.
While cats cannot be ADA service animals in a strict legal sense, when it comes to being therapy animals or emotional support animals, there is no question that cats do provide critical services for people in pain. Do you have experience with non-dog assistance animals, be they cats, hedgehogs or even snakes? Have the interactions made a difference? If you feel comfortable with the prospect, share your thoughts in the comments.