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Service animals serve a wide variety of useful functions for humans. From predicting seizures, to guiding the visually impaired, to dialing the telephone, specially trained service dogs have been providing invaluable services—as well as companionship—to Americans with disabilities since at least 1927. There have also been problems in the new recently about people having fake service dogs. But can a cat be a service animal too?
The answer to that question depends on a surprisingly wide variety of factors, including exactly how you choose to define what a “service animal” is and even what state you live in. As man’s second best friend, you’d think cats should be just as qualified as dogs to aid humans, but the truth of the matter is that the law doesn’t always treat cats with the same respect as it does dogs. Just ask my two cats.
Old Cats… New Tricks?
How can a cat be a service animal if cats can’t be trained? Spoiler alert: they can! While not as widespread as trained dogs, trained cats are definitely a thing. Not only are cats receptive to training, they can actually do some things that not even dogs can do! There are documented cases of cats learning to control wheelchairs, carry small items (like cell phones), and even dial 9-1-1. While these traits certainly seem like they should qualify cats as ADA-certified service animals, federal laws have yet to permit any animals besides dogs (and occasionally miniature horses, I guess) as official service animals. It’s unclear if the powers that be are considering allowing cats or other non-dogs to become service animals, but it doesn’t appear to be something likely to happen any time soon.
Cats as Service Animals
Of course, what does it mean to be an “ADA-certified” service animal anyway? There are a few very specific elements that define a service animal. One of the pillars I’ve already touched on is that it has to be a dog. The Americans with Disabilities Act explicitly states “other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals.” The dog must be specifically and individually trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with a disability. In this context, “disability” refers to any “physical, sensory, psychiatric. intellectual, or other mental disability.” This casts a very wide net for what a service animal can do, but common tasks for service animals include guiding visually impaired people (“seeing eye dogs”), pulling a wheelchair, retrieving small items, and providing assistance in the event of a seizure. If some of these tasks sound familiar, they should! Just a paragraph ago, I told you about cats that are trained in many of the same tasks, giving us some pretty solid evidence that cats could make excellent services animals.
So can a cat be a service animal even if it’s not an “official” ADA service animal? Absolutely! However, if your service animal is a cat, don’t expect to receive the same legal protections as you would with a service dog in most states. I say “most states” because, while federal laws only allow dogs as service animals, individual states are allowed to expand the definition. Notably, Montana allows any animal to serve as a service animal, leading to not only cats, but also birds and even wolves acting as service animals in the state. If you’re unsure of your state’s definition of service animals, it is worth looking up to see if your service cat can be legally sanctioned at the state level.
Cats as Emotional Support Animals
Another way to approach the question depends on how you define “service animal.” Broadly speaking, the term can also refer to emotional support animals or therapy animals, both of which are categories in which cats are legally accepted.
The tradeoff is that emotional support animals and therapy pets aren’t legally protected to the same extent as “actual” service animals. Emotional support animals, also known as comfort animals, are intended to help their owners cope with anxiety or depression or other psychological ailments and can be obtained via a prescription from your therapist or other mental health professional. Typically requiring no specialized training, comfort animals can be dogs or cats or almost any other animal approved by the therapist, as psychiatric service animals can improve your mental health.
Emotional support animals offer a number of considerable benefits, most notably that they are legally permitted to live with you even if your house or apartment has some sort of No Pets policy. ESAs can also be kept in your home without any additional pet deposit or pet rent, and they are permitted for airline travel with no extra fees. Service animals and emotional support animals differ, however, in that the latter are not permitted in public spaces that don’t otherwise allow domesticated animals. If you’re trying to find out if a cat can be a service animal, they can at least make excellent emotional support animals.
Cats as Therapy Animals
Different from a service animal or an emotional support animal, another classification of animals with important jobs is referred to as therapy pets or therapy animals. Commonly cats or dogs, therapy pets are trained by a pet therapist and taken to hospitals, nursing homes, and other similar venues to assist in guided therapy sessions for a variety of patients, as an animal can be your nurse, in a way. There are two distinct types of pet therapy, and they differ in how structured the they are. The first, animal assisted therapy (AAT), is when trained cats or dogs assist patients in highly structured therapeutic activities. The second, animal assisted activities (AAA), isn’t even explicitly referred to as “therapy” in order to distinguish it from more strictly regulated forms of pet therapy. In AAA, a handler brings pets to a hospital, school, etc. to assist in general comfort, relaxation, or recreational activities. AAA’s more casual nature means that a wide variety of animals can participate in it, as strict training isn’t a necessity.
Therapy animals are probably not what most people have in mind when they ask, “can a cat be a service animal?” but it’s important to understand that “service animal” is often used as an all-encompassing term to refer to a wide variety of pet occupations. While cats are currently not legally permitted to be official “service animals,” that doesn’t mean they aren’t up to the task. Cats truly shine, however, as emotional support animals and therapy pets.