Service dogs can do amazing things, from pushing wheelchairs and guiding the blind across busty streets, to getting their human to a safe place when a seizure is about to occur. These skilled pups perform a wide range of tasks, and can help many physically and mentally disabled people live fuller lives. But what about cats?
Our feline furiends have certainly shown how deeply they can bond with us, and have been known to do some pretty amazing things too! There have been plenty of anecdotes of cats opening doors or warning their pet parents about fires and other disasters. One such tale is of a woman with widespread nerve pain and a tendency to faint who trained five of her cats to perform tasks such as driving her wheelchair, fetching her phone, and pushing her out of the shower. One of her cats even calls 911 when she passes out. Does the ability to do these tasks mean that cats can also be service animals?
Most cats seem to be indifferent to what we are doing, but some certainly show their love by keeping an eye on us. And while stories abound online of cats doing extraordinary things to help their pet parents, the real question is if they are able to be trained to be a service animal full time.
According to the American with Disabilities Act, a service animal is a dog who is trained to perform tasks to help people with disabilities, including those with mental, sensory, intellectual, psychiatric, and physical disabilities. It further states that only dogs are recognized as service animals. If you were looking at your fluffy feline and wondering if they could be trained to help fetch you things, the official answer to the question ‘can cats become service animals’ is no, not officially.
It’s commonly believed that only dogs can learn the things that many service animals are asked to do, such as seizure support, guiding, and assisting with daily activities. But in most cases, the relationship between a human and a service animal also includes affection and emotional support, and for these traits, cats are just purrfect.
So, if cats can’t be service animals, what can they do for us?
There’s no doubt that owning a cat can bring a lot of benefits into your life. But many cats also seem to be hardwired to become Emotional Support Animals (ESA). Some breeds are better at it than others, but in general, ESAs are pets who, through their purrsonalities and behaviors, provide emotional support to their people.
Emotional support animals are not considered service animals, and the rules are not quite as strict. Cats can be designated official ESAs by the ESA Registration Organization. To register a cat, a therapist must identify and prescribe a need for the emotional support, and suggest therapy ranging from individual to group therapy, or to mental health institutions. A letter from the therapist is accompanied by regular evaluations and assessments of the cat’s effectiveness in how they help their human.
The advantage of the program is that ESA cats can protect their pet parents from discrimination in housing and other rights, and may even be taken to places where a cat would normally not be allowed, such as public transportation.
Several traits have been identified as defining a good breed for emotional support. Many of these felines are gentle, affectionate and intelligent. They can be cuddly, playful and get along well with children and older adults. While almost any cat may be able to fill these criteria, there are certain breeds that carry the desired traits that make them furrific emotional support animals. These include:
- Ragdoll: This kitty is passive, gentle, and mild-mannered. The Ragdoll likes to be carried and petted, and when held, may go limp like a rag doll would.
- American Bobtail: This cat is demonstrative and entertaining, and very good with children. These cats are named Bobtail because their tail is half the length of normal feline tails.
- Manx: The Manx has no tail at all, but is quite intelligent and has a big personality. Besides liking to be cuddled, the Manx loves to play games like catch with their humans.
- Persian: A beautiful cat that likes to express itself, these fur-babies make their needs known, and sometimes seem to meow “just because.”
- Russian Blue: Attentive to their humans’ needs and very well-mannered, the intelligent Russian Blue is very tuned in to what’s going on around them.
- Maine Coon Cat: The largest of all domesticated cat breeds, this feline's long, silky locks make it appear even bigger. While intelligent and playful, the Maine Coon loves nothing more than plopping down on your lap and purring.
Therapy animals are also not considered service animals, which means cats are eligible for this pawrific work. There are currently two types of recognized therapy animals: Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities Therapy (AAAT).
- In AAT, people hold, pet, and play with a cat as part of their physical therapy, which assists in the development of motor skills. These people are usually recovering from an injury or procedure.
- In AAAT, the visiting companions provide general emotional support. Often, they visit people in nursing homes or other facilities.
Both types of therapy can benefit people by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels, as well as providing comfort and unconditional love.
Therapy cats aren’t pets and don’t live with the patients they work with. These animals are trained and managed by cat behavioral professionals. But because they are not registered emotional support animals, they don’t afford the same privileges through the ADA and the federal government as registered emotional support cats do.
Many conditions and behaviors can be improved by the use of AAT and AAAT therapy animals, including:
- Cognitive decline
- Substance addiction
- Chemotherapy side effects
- Mobility issues
- Memory impairment
- Emotional and behavioral disorders
- Psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia
- Verbal communication problems
These helpful kitties can also have a positive effect on the development of feelings of motivation, empathy, and nurturing skills.
So can cats become service animals? No, not yet. But there’s no doubt they can be of service to humans in other ways. Providing support and therapy for people who are suffering from emotional, psychological or physical pain is right up a cat’s alley!