Cats as Service Animals?

Dr. Laci Schaible

Service Cats

It was several years ago when I had my first appointment with a “service cat.” It was nothing more than a routine wellness examination and I let it slide while nodding politely. Since then, I have seen a small but consistent rise in this unusual species to be donning a service animal vest.

I never questioned the cat owners, or owners of any species claiming to be a service pet, because frankly it isn't worth fighting over a small service animal discount. It has always left me scratching me head, but questioning whether or not an animal is a true service animal is not a conversation I wish to initiate, in or out of the veterinary hospital. However, it started my research, as this is not an area veterinary medicine schooled me in.

So I present to you the question of the hour (or at least this post): can a cat be a service pet?

For decades, federal law has mandated that service dogs can accompany people with disabilities as they go about their normal lives - flying in the cabin of aircraft, welcomed in restaurants and even taxi cabs. According to the ADA, “dogs qualify as service animals when the owner has a documented disability, the dog is trained to perform a task to alleviate that disability, and the animal's presence in public does not alter the environment for others.”

Dogs are, of course, the most commonly noted animals that serve as our human helpers and guides. After researching the issues myself, I learned that under the current ADA revisions, miniature horses can technically be considered service animals too, provided they are housebroken, appropriately trained, and well-controlled.

As for cats? The law does not come down in favor of the furry feline and it is clear in drawing this line.

So why do we continue to see a growing number of pets, dogs, cats, birds, and other species, decked out in service animal costumes with their pet parent quick to flash a service animal ID card? There is no government certification for service dogs, and owners aren't required to carry proof of a service dog's training. This lack of oversight makes it all too tempting for some less than ethical pet parents to fraudulently pass off their pets, even cats, as service animals in the name of the convenience of having their pet accompany them.

A quick Google search led me to multiple “service animal agencies” that allow one to “register” their pet, even a cat, for less than $100, no questions asked. The sites are quick to highlight in bold font, “NOT ALL DISABILITIES ARE VISIBLE.”

I have heard of cats that alert an owner of an upcoming seizure or can even sense a change in a person's blood glucose levels. Some say that their cats help them cope with sleeping disorders. Cats can provide great emotional support.

But meeting the requirements of a true service animal? Really? One of my cats is trained to walk on the leash, and easily trained to fetch, come, and sit. She seems very sharp, at least for a cat. But do I think she could be trained as a service animal? Absolutely not.

I fully admit that between my cats and myself, I will always be the service animal to them, much more than they ever could, or even would, be to me.

While it is indeed disappointing that the government had to redefine its definition of a service animal, it seems they have decided that cats is not a true service animal. And neither will I, as a provider of veterinary services. 

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