Can a cat be a service animal?

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According to the Americans with Disabilities Act informational website, a service animal is

A dog individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, including physical, sensory, mental, intellectual, or other mental disability. No other type of animal, whether wild or domesticated, trained or untrained, is considered a service animal.


Before asking whether a cat can be a service animal, the definition seems to end. If the definition immediately limited the animals that could be service animals to dogs, there would be far fewer choices. However, the definition of a service animal is one that is responsible for performing specific, physically demanding tasks. This includes a variety of tasks that require training to help a disabled person perform important daily tasks.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, cats cannot be service animals as such. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This statement is specific to service animals, such as guide dogs for the visually impaired, guide dogs to assist the hearing impaired, and guide dogs to retrieve items for people with mobility problems. One need not imagine why cats would be excluded from such duties. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, any animal must be specially trained and certified in order to be considered a service animal.

Cats, however, are wonderful!

As long as you don’t depend on a cat to help you cross the street at a busy intersection or deliver your medications in broad daylight, cats are great and help in other ways. Cats, ferrets, pigs, and even miniature horses play an important role for people as therapy animals. There is a fine line between service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy animals, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulates this:

Providing emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship is not considered work or tasks for purposes of the definition of service animal.

Emotional support is just as important to people with mental health issues as physical support, which is the type of disability defined by the ADA. Insofar as we strive to be precise in our terminology, there is a further distinction between therapy animals and emotional support animals. Cats can be both therapy animals and emotional support animals.

Cats as Therapy Animals and Emotional Support Animals

Cats and other domesticated animals can help people with a variety of problems. Anxiety and depression may be the first things that come to mind, but the terms “therapy animal” and “emotional support animal” have a much broader meaning than mental health issues. While a service animal or emotional support animal may be with a person 24/7, a therapy animal tends to be a transient presence in a person’s life. Let’s take a closer look at these two terms and see how cats are positioned.

Therapy cats and ESAs can help people work through rehab, anxiety, or depression. Photo by Tracy Ducasse on Flickr

What is a therapy cat?

Therapy cats usually visit their supporters rather than live with them. To qualify as a therapy cat, a cat must be registered, easily mobile, rarely shed, well socialized, and able to interact peacefully with a variety of people. The National Service Animal Registry classifies therapy animals into three main categories. They are as follows

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy: Cats are helpful to people undergoing physical therapy. For those recovering from various surgeries or trying to regain fine motor skills in their arms and hands, simply petting, holding, or stroking a cat can be an important part of their rehabilitation.
  • Institutional Therapy: The term “institutional” here refers to any place where therapy cats provide support to patients. This could be an assisted living facility, a nursing home, or a convalescent home. Cats and other therapeutic animals live in the facility with trained handlers to provide comfort, support, or simply spend time with the resident.
  • Therapeutic Visitation: according to the NSAR, this is the most common type of therapy animal. Typically, therapy animals are sedentary pets, and their owners take them to various locations where they play and interact with people for a limited amount of time. Therapy animals go to rehabilitation centers, hospitals, nursing homes, and even detention facilities.

What is an Emotional Support Cat?

Unlike therapy animals, emotional support animals are usually time-limited visitors before returning to their forever homes. Emotional support cats are essentially the pet equivalent of prescription drugs, which is kind of awesome. Unless the patient is allergic to cats, this may be the only prescription drug available, and the side effect may be an inability to go to the bathroom.

Common sense and scientific research complement each other, and it has long been accepted that regular interaction with pets has tangible benefits for mental health. While simply watching a video of a cat can have a quantifiable impact on anxiety and depression, nothing beats direct contact. Like therapy animals, potential emotional support animals are more open-minded than service animals.

The requirements for emotional support cats are far less restrictive. Photo via Shutterstock

Virtually any animal can achieve emotional support animal status, as long as it relieves rather than exacerbates current problems. What further distinguishes emotional support animals from service animals and therapy animals is that they do not require special training or certification to function.

Unlike service and therapy animals, emotional support animals (including cats) can be pets that people already own. For the purpose of traveling or staying in other places where pets are prohibited, emotional support animals must be docile in public and require a form, prescription, or certification from a licensed mental health professional.

Do you have experience “servicing” cats?

As with any medical service, access to certified therapy cats is largely dependent on your ability to live or reside at a participating facility. This is also true for emotional support animals, but to a more limited extent, at least a consultation and documentation from a mental health professional is required. Anyone who has recovered or rehabilitated from physical, mental, or emotional trauma knows that the process can be difficult even under the best of circumstances, and that any coping strategies are worth trying.

In a strictly legal sense, cats cannot be ADA service animals, but when it comes to therapy animals and emotional support animals, there is no doubt that cats provide an important service to people in pain. Have you had any experience with cats, hedgehogs, snakes, or other support animals other than dogs? Have such interactions ever made a difference? If you are comfortable with that possibility, please share your thoughts in the comments.

By Melvin Pena, March 28, 2017

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