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Can Cats Be Service or Emotional Support Animals?

woman cuddling with a cat

So You Want a Cat To Be a Service Animal?

Animals are amazing creatures. They can be trained to perform not only tricks, but also tasks such as alerting they humans to medical emergencies. They can be part of a therapy program, and can also provide emotional support on a medically recognized level. 

The purring of a cat has even been shown to calm the nerves of people when they are anxious. So you may wonder if a cat can be a service animal like a dog. To answer this question we need to determine what a service animal is and how it differs from an emotional support animal or ESA. 

A service animal is defined as an animal that is trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual person with a disability. Even though cats are capable of learning some tasks, only dogs and miniature horses are legally recognized as service animals and protected by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).  

Even thought the ADA does not recognize cats as service animals, they can still be amazing emotional support animals for therapeutic reasons. 

What is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal provides unconditional positive support and love. Pets promote emotional support through the regulation of feelings, management of stress and helping people to cope with difficult life events or even just when one is overwhelmed with strong feelings.

Depression and anxiety are unfortunately common mental health problems today. Therapists often suggest getting an emotional support animal to help manage these conditions. Unlike service animals, which are limited to dogs, any domesticated animal (even rabbits, guinea pigs, birds and more!) are potential qualified to be emotional support animals. 

Service animals, therapy animals, and emotional support animals are defined differently by the ADA. Read on to understand the difference:

Cat sleeping with owner

What are Service Animals?

ADA defines service animals as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.  

These animals are trained to carry out tasks such as helping the blind or elderly to get about, picking up items for people in a wheelchair, or keeping people with dementia or autism safe.  

To elaborate, service animals are highly trained, and since most cats are not as capable of being trained in the same way as dogs, they do not qualify as service animals. 

Although we have heard of a story about a cat that was trained to walk on a leash and help a blind person move around the city, this was a very unusual, rare occurance.

Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and are allowed to accompany their person everywhere (unlike Emotional Support Animals), including airplanes, restaurants, stores. They also have no housing restrictions. 

A boy with a service Labrador dog.

Therapy Animals 

Therapy animals can be a part of a treatment plan called animal-assisted therapies. These animals work in hospitals, mental heath institutions, hospices, schools, and as part of classes at stables, specifically to bring comfort and affection to many different people. 

Therapy pets impact the daily lives of many by helping to reduce stress, improve communication for those who struggle, lower blood pressure, and help an individual cope with their emotions. 

Therapy animals are typically certified by an animal-assisted intervention organization after behavioral training and evaluation. These animals are usually recognized because they wear a bandana, harness, or ID tag.

Like emotional support animals, therapy animals typically include (but are certainly not limited to) dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, and guinea pigs.

Woman kissing horse

Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals are different than therapy animals as they are typically more likely to have one person only that they support, or they may be found in nursing homes and hospices. 

Emotional Support Animals provide a therapeutic benefit (e.g., emotional support, comfort, companionship) for a person with a diagnosed mental health or psychiatric disability (such as a serious mental health condition). To have your animal as a legitimate ESA, you must have a letter from your licensed mental health professional. 

These animals are protected under the Fair Housing Act (FHA); and under the ADA  housing providers cannot refuse them or charge a pet deposit. 

Some of the mental health issues that a Emotional Support Animal may be approved for include:

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Learning difficulties
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loneliness
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Child with cat

Like therapy pets, a variety of animals may qualify as emotional support animals, however the most common are dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and rabbits. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals are not required to have any special training. If you are considering getting a cat to be your emotional support animal, make sure to check for the right cat breed that fits your family and has the right temperament. 

How Do Cats Help Improve Mental Health? 

Studies have shown that petting or cuddling a cat reduces the stress hormone cortisol, with decreases heart rate and blood pressure and helps to calm feelings and anxiety. Cats can sense moods, especially anxiety, and cats are known to rub up against their person more when they are anxious or depressed in an effort to comfort or distract them. Petting a purring cat has been shown to release endorphins, which is the body's natural way of decreasing pain and stress levels. 

Just note that indoor cats are more prone to weight gain issues, so be sure to get your emotional support animal cat appropriate exercise or nutritional support

How to Register A Cat as an Emotional Support Animal

Only people diagnosed with mental health issues can register an animal as an emotional support animal. You can always seek help regarding any mental health issue from a professional. 

If you are not already being treated for for a mental health diagnosis, find a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or even a counselor. If you are already seeing someone or have been diagnosed,  discuss your intention to get a cat as an emotional support animal with them. Remember, the professional must be licensed.

Your licensed mental professional will then evaluate your condition, and if they feel the emotional support animal will help you manage the symptoms of your condition, they will provide an ESA letter on their official letterhead, which must include:

  • The mental health professional's contact information
  • Their license number
  • A signature

You have the right to choose to keep the details of your mental health condition private. 

While the ESA letter is essential, you need not put a special tag, vest, or ID for your emotional support cat. It is important to stay up to date on regulations, as they do change. Previously, air travel was allowed for ESA cats, however that changed as of December 2020, and only service animals are allowed on airplanes. However, your emotional support animal may ride in a carrier under the seat, making a cat a great choice. 

Emotional support animals are protected by housing laws, including college dorms.  A landlord is allowed to require you to show your Emotional Support Animal letter as proof of your ESA. You must have one letter per animal if keeping more than one emotional support animal. 

cat with woman

The Final Word

Cats may not be allowed as official service animal, but they can be an excellent emotional support animal. Their presence and cuteness is proven to have a positive impact on your mental health! If you are thinking of getting an ESA, talk to your licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or counsellor as a next step.

Browse BestLife4Pets to shop for pet supplements to help keep your pet friend healthy. 

Do you always wonder why cats love playing with boxes? Check out our new blog to discover why your cat refuses to get out of that cardboard box. 

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