Can Cats Be Service Animals? No… and Yes

Audra H. has been disabled since a car accident while she was in college. “I have a blood clot on my brain that causes episodes of syncope. Simply put, I pass out,” she explains. “I have fibromyalgia, bilateral neuropathy, bilateral sciatica and constant migraines, just to name a few of the issues I live with.” One night, she fainted and hit her head on a table when no one else was home…except for her Persian cat, Shad. Shad frantically knocked the phone over and dialed 911. But this wasn’t a one-off event, or some lucky mistake. Shad knew what she was doing, and she did it again the next time Audra passed out. The responding officer, who had a hard time believing the cat had learned to call 911, set up his dash cam and Audra simulated a fainting spell. Shad rose to the occasion and made the call.

Shad was the first of five cats Audra has trained as service animals to help her live independently. Her current pair, Ragdolls named Deztinee and RaenaBelle, can call for help, drive Audra’s wheelchair, push her out of the shower, and bring her small items, such as the phone. One of them always accompanies Audra in public and can alert her before she passes out, so she can get to a safe place.

The only problem? The Americans With Disabilities Act does not recognize cats as service animals. That’s not to say that cats don’t play valuable roles in the lives of their human companions. In an average person’s day-to-day life, they are pals, supervisors, and beloved family members. On a more therapeutic level, they can serve as an emotional support or comfort animal, or they can visit hospitals and nursing homes as a therapy pet. But legally, a cat can’t be acknowledged as a service animal.

There is a lot of confusion about what constitutes emotional support animals, therapy pets, and service animals. Here are the definitions:

An Emotional Support Animal (also known as a comfort animal) gives comfort to people who have a mental or emotional disability. ESAs can live with their owners in housing in spite of a No Pets policy and are exempted from pet deposits. They are also allowed on airplanes without a pet fee. For a pet to qualify as an ESA, the owner’s therapist must write a letter prescribing a need for the animal. Emotional Support Animals can be a dog, cat, or any other species the therapist deems appropriate. These pets generally don’t have any special training.

A Therapy Pet is an animal who visits hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other facilities to interact with patients or students in a mentally or emotionally beneficial way. Dogs, cats, rats, bunnies and even horses, alpacas and lizards have served as therapy pets. Often dogs and cats go through a rigorous evaluation and are certified by an organization to perform therapy pet duties. These animals are mainly pets who belong to a volunteer, and other than their assigned visits, they don’t have special access to any public areas.

A Service Animal is individually trained to help someone with disabilities in ways that will help them function or help them in a medical crisis. These tasks include physical, sensory, and mental duties. The animal can be the owner’s eyes or ears, pull a wheelchair, provide assistance during a seizure, retrieve medicine, and many other types of work. Service animals may accompany their owners to all public areas and private businesses, but must be well behaved. Right now, only dogs and very occasionally miniature horses can be considered service animals under the ADA.

This doesn’t mean a cat can’t do many service animal type tasks. In fact, cats are far more trainable than people realize. Audra has her own techniques that she writes about in her blog, Deziz World. Like a lot of cat training, it relies on affection, reward, and lots of routine. She brings home younger cats, since they learn behavior more quickly, and chooses cats who bond with her right away, because that connection is an important part of being a service animal.

Even though there is no official recognition for service cats, Audra and other cat-loving people with disabilities continue working with their cats and trying to educate others to overcome the misconception that cats can’t do important tasks.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.