Service Cats as Emotional Support Animals

Published June 30, 2022
girl in office with service cat

Cats provide enormous support for their owners, so if you qualify for a service animal for a physical or mental disability, you may wonder if or how you can make your cat a service animal. Unfortunately, a cat cannot legally be considered a service animal. However, it's possible your feline friend can qualify as an emotional support animal. Discover the requirements for emotional support cats and what you should know about service cat registration.

Can Cats Be Service Animals?

No, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), cats cannot be service animals. The only species permitted to serve as service animals are dogs and, in some cases, miniature horses. Service animals are defined as working dogs trained to complete a specific task or tasks to aid a person with a physical or mental disability. These duties can include guiding a blind individual, protecting a person during a seizure, or retrieving help, among numerous other tasks.

While the ADA does not explicitly state why cats cannot qualify as service animals, their small size may prevent them from performing these tasks. However, even if your cat does provide life-saving skills such as detecting low blood sugar or predicting seizures, they are not considered a service animal.

Cats as Emotional Support Animals

cat with red harness

Emotional support animals (ESA) are generally recommended for individuals with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder who are not eligible for service animals. Their role is to provide therapeutic support to ease their owners' symptoms. Fortunately, any domesticated animal, including a cat, can qualify as an emotional support animal. Therefore, service cats fall under this classification.

In order to make your cat an emotional support animal, you must receive a prescription or letter from a licensed mental health professional stating your need for an ESA. Emotional support animals are not required to undergo any special training to make them eligible for this role. However, some emotional support cats may receive training to complete specific tasks for their owner, although this still does not qualify them as service animals under the ADA.

Registering Your Service Cat

Once you've acquired your emotional support animal letter, there's not much left to do. There is no mandated service cat registration. However, some people do choose to have their ESA enrolled through registries, such as the ESA Registration of America or US Service Animals. Doing so boasts benefits, such as a certificate, ID card, and vest, among other perks. However, legally, the only thing you need as proof for your service cat is your ESA letter.

Training for Emotional Support Cats

Even though ESAs are not required to undergo any specific training, they should have basic skills if you intend to bring your support cat out in public or travel with them.

  • Socialization: Begin socializing your cat as early as possible. Go slowly and gradually get them used to being held, picked up, and carried. Always reassure your cat with a gentle voice and reward them with affection or treats if they are food motivated. It's also important to familiarize your service cat with various people, animals, smells, and sounds if you'd like to take them to friends' homes or pet-friendly establishments.
  • Obedience: Cats are not known to be the most obedient species, but many cats respond well to clicker training. Helpful commands to teach your cat include responding to their name, "Come," Stay," "Fetch," and "Leave it." You may have success training your cat to perform service tasks, such as retrieving your medication in an emergency situation or calling for help.
  • Leash-walking: The ability to tolerate a harness and leash are critical skills for cats that will travel. You can find cat-specific apparel that will help keep your cat safe. Gradually familiarize them with the harness, then begin walking them on the leash inside before taking on the great outdoors.
  • Health evaluation: All cats should receive routine healthcare, but this is especially important for assistance cats. Traveling can put your cat at higher risk for viruses and parasites compared to strictly indoor cats. You want your service cat to support you for many years to come, so you must provide them with optimal care.

Laws Protecting Service Cats

cat in pet carrier at airport

Many of the laws that protect service animals do not cover emotional support animals. However, there is one significant rule that applies to assistance animals. Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), landlords can't refuse to make reasonable accommodations for individuals with ESAs for a disability. This means even if a rental property has a "no pets" policy, you and your emotional support cat have legal rights.

Regulations for traveling with ESAs have changed drastically in recent years. Previously, all assistance animals, including emotional support cats and dogs, could fly in the cabin regardless of their size or breed. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation no longer accepts ESAs as service animals.

Still, due to their small size, most support cats are permitted to fly in an airplane cabin if they weigh less than 20 pounds and can fit in a carrier under the seat. Contact individual airlines to inquire about their restrictions or guidelines. For ground travel, pet-friendly ride sharing services are a great option.

When it comes to visiting establishments such as restaurants or other public spaces, there are no regulations protecting support cats. You can certainly bring your cat into any building that has a pet-friendly policy or allows ESAs. However, others may unfortunately turn your feline companion away since they're not legally a service animal.

Therapy Cats

man with therapy cat

Another service role that cats can take on is that of a therapy cat. Therapy cats provide emotional support for individuals in settings such as hospitals, schools, or retirement homes. Unlike emotional support cats, therapy cats undergo training to work with many people and do not simply provide comfort for their handler.

Requirements for therapy cats are much more stringent than those for ESAs. If you'd like to train your cat to be a therapy cat, they must have the right personality (patient, calm, and friendly), demonstrate common commands, and pass a health exam, among other criteria.

You'll also need to certify your "team" (which includes you and your cat or anyone else who will handle your cat) with an organization such as Pet Partners or Love On A Leash. While the process can be lengthy, volunteering your time and your cat's affection to those who can benefit from pet therapy is well worth it.

Emotional Support From Service Cats

Cat ownership has numerous proven benefits, including decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and minimized depressive symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition and feel that having a service cat would benefit your life, speak with your therapist. After acquiring an ESA letter, you can adopt a kitten to train or make your current feline friend a support animal.

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Service Cats as Emotional Support Animals