Can Cats Be Service Animals?

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Emotional support cat

If you dream of making your pet cat a service cat, you might be disappointed to learn that legally, cats are not considered service animals in the United States.

Though cats are amazing animals that can provide people with many emotional and mental health benefits, only dogs may be legally classified as service animals as outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, cats can be used as emotional support animals (ESA) or be trained as therapy animals. Service animals, emotional support animals and therapy animals are very different, both in function and according to federal laws.

What Is A Service Animal?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is a dog that receives special training to perform specialized tasks or do work for a person with a disability. Cats and other animals may not be classified as service animals, and only dogs that are trained to do specific tasks for a person with a disability are classified as service animals and afforded  legal protections like public access outlined in the ADA.

Service animals may assist with many different types of disabilities, including performing tasks for people with physical disabilities (guide dogs leading the blind, picking up objects, helping with mobility), doing tasks to assist with psychiatric disabilities like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alerting to low blood sugar or an impending seizure, and working to assist with sensory, intellectual, or other mental disabilities. Service animals are afforded many legal protections. They are permitted to accompany their handlers in public, even in places dogs are not usually allowed.

Service dog

In the U.S., only dogs can be service animals according to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

What Is An Emotional Support Animal?

Emotional support animals, sometimes called comfort animals, are pets that provide emotional support and comfort for people who suffer from mental illness or emotional disabilities such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, as well as certain physical disabilities. Emotional support animals can be any type of animals, including cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, ferrets, miniature horses and more.

The main difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal is the emotional support animal is not trained to perform tasks or do work. The presence of the emotional support animal is what provides support for the human.

At one time, the definitions of emotional support animals were gray, and emotional support animals were sometimes afforded similar access to public places as service animals. More recently, this access has been restricted as various agencies have clarified definitions and tightened regulations.

The ADA does not recognize emotional support animals as service animals, and in 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation revised its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulation on the transportation of service animals by air, ruling that emotional support animals are no longer considered service animals on flights. Airlines can now ban emotional support animals from flying in the cabin if they so choose.

Emotional support animals do have legal protections in one area: housing. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), an emotional support animal is considered a “reasonable accommodation” for people living in housing with a no pets policy.

If you live somewhere that has a “no pets” rule, but your cat is an emotional support animal, you are permitted to have an emotional support cat provided you can provide documentation of your disability and your disability-related need for an assistance animal.

This is accomplished via a written note, sometimes called an ESA letter, provided by a doctor, licensed mental health professional or social worker.

Emotional support animals are not considered pets, so the landlord may not charge a specific pet deposit or pet fee. However, the landlord may charge a security deposit and you may be responsible for any damage caused by your emotional support animal.

If you’d like help getting your ESA letter, you may want to use a service like Pettable. Pettable determines whether or not you qualify for a consultation and connects you with a qualified professional who will assess you and prescribe a legally compliant ESA letter.

Emotional support cat

Emotional support cats help their owners cope with anxiety, PTSD, depression and other mental disabilities.

What Is A Therapy Animal?

Therapy animals are those trained to visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools, libraries and other places for therapeutic visitation or animal-assisted therapy. Some therapy pets are used to help children with autism. Many different animals can be trained as therapy pets, including cats, dogs, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, birds, miniature horses and more.

Therapy pets may snuggle with children in the hospital, visit with the elderly, sit and listen to children reading, or visit disaster sites to offer emotional comfort to victims and families of victims. Some therapy animals assist with a patient’s rehabilitation or occupational therapy. For instance, a therapy cat might sit calmly and accept brushing from a stroke victim as part of that patient’s therapy.

Therapy animals are not afforded the same legal protections as service animals. Animal-assisted therapy is volunteer work done at specific facilities that offer therapy programs. Having your cat certified as a therapy animals will not allow you to bring the cat into grocery stores, hotels or other places of business, or fly in your lap on airplanes.

Can Cats Be Service Animals?

Cats cannot be service animals, but cats can be emotional support animals or therapy pets. Any pet can become an emotional support animal to a person with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments.

No training is necessary for a cat to become an emotional support animal. Therapy cats should have specific temperaments and receive training and certification before they can be registered as a therapy animal.

Registering Your Cat As An Emotional Support Animal

You do not need to register or certify your cat as an emotional support animal. If you are asking your landlord for a reasonable accommodation for your emotional cat to be allowed to live with you in a residence that does not permit pets, all you need is a written statement from a licensed doctor, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional.

You are not required to disclose the nature of your disability. The note need only state that you have a disability and that you have a disability-related need for the assistance animal.

Therapy cat

Therapy cats brighten the days of people hospital patients and lonely nursing home residents.

Certifying Your Cat As A Therapy Animal

If you would like to volunteer your time and share your cat with people in need, you might enjoy pet therapy. Therapy animals require training and/or evaluation to ensure they are calm and accepting many different types of environments and people.

Therapy cats should not be upset by wheelchairs, people using walkers, the loud clanging of dropped instruments, energetic children, or people who move or speak differently. Not every cat is well-suited for therapy work.

A good candidate is a cat that is naturally friendly toward people and other animals, curious, calm and well-behaved. A therapy cat should also be comfortable traveling in a carrier and used to wearing a collar and harness and walking on a leash.

Most places that facilitate therapeutic visitation and animal-assisted therapy require therapy animals to be certified and registered before they can volunteer. Becoming certified allows you to attend therapy visits at places with programs in place, and also ensures you and your cat are insured should an issue arise during a therapy visit.

There are several large organizations that certify cat and owner therapy teams, including Pet Partners and Love on a Leash. Smaller, regional programs are sometimes available as well. Ask your veterinarian or local animal shelter if for a referral to a pet therapy organization that accepts cats.

Though the process varies depending on which group you choose to work with, typically your cat will have to take and pass an evaluation, then take part in supervised visits for a number of hours before applying for membership with the therapy organization. Once registered, you can your cat can volunteer on your own, visiting hospitals, schools, nursing homes or other local places that welcome therapy pets.

Although pet therapy is volunteer work, you will have to pay some fees to become certified and remain registered with the certifying organization. Expect to pay fees for training, evaluations and initial registration, plus renewal fees thereafter. In return, members get access to support, ongoing training and liability insurance.

Emotional support cat

Emotional support cats do not need to be certified or registered.

Beware Online “Service Animal Registries”

Don’t be duped by individuals or organizations that sell “service animal” certifications or registrations online. True service animals (which may only be dogs, not cats), are not federally required to be certified, registered or documented (though state and local governments may have different regulations).

Purchasing a special certificate, collar or vest will not give your cat access to places where pets are not allowed. Remembers, only dogs can be classified as service animals, and even true service dogs are not required to wear any type of vest, collar or identifying apparel. Many states are cracking down on people who fraudulently misrepresent their pet as a service animal, charging hefty fines.

Emotional support cats are also not required to be certified or registered. If you wish to request that your landlord allow you to keep your emotional support cat in housing that doesn’t permit pets, all you need is a note from a professional who can attest to your need. Emotional support cats are not granted special access to public places where pets are not allowed.

Therapy cats should be registered with a therapy organization before doing volunteer therapy works, but being certified as a therapy cat doesn’t provide your cat special access to restaurants, store, hotels, planes, or other public places.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I make my cat a service animal?

Cats cannot be service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are dogs that are trained to perform specialized tasks or do work for a person with a disability. Cats can, however, be emotional support animals or certified for pet therapy.

What animals can legally be service animals?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, only dogs may be service animals. Other animal species, including cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, miniature horses and more are often used as emotional support animals or therapy animals.

Why are there no service cats?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, only dogs may be service animals. Cats can be emotional support animals, offering emotional support and comfort for people who suffer from mental disabilities and certain physical disabilities. Cats can also be certified as therapy cats, visiting the sick in hospitals, elderly in nursing homes, special children’s programs and more.

Can an emotional support animal be denied?

Legally, emotional support animals are granted no special public access or treatment. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), an emotional support animal is a “reasonable accommodation” for people living in housing that bans pets. Even if your residence has a “no pets” rule, you are allowed to keep your emotional support cat as long as you can provide the landlord with a written note from a doctor or other health care professional stating that you have a disability and a disability-related need for an emotional support animal.

View Sources

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, Americans with Disabilities Act General Rules, 2010

Rebecca F. Wisch, 2015, Michigan State University College of Law, Overview of Assistance Animals in Housing, retrieved from Animal Legal & Historical Center, 2020

About Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is a freelance writer specializing in the pet industry. She writes on all pet and veterinary topics, including general health and care, nutrition, grooming, behavior, training, veterinary and health topics, rescue and animal welfare, lifestyle, and the human-animal bond. Jackie is the former editor of numerous pet magazines and is a regular contributor to pet magazines and websites.

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