While dogs are considered to be a more popular choice in regards to certified assistance animals, cats have been on the rise as another choice for people with disabilities and health conditions. However, the stereotypes against cats have been a deterrent towards this prospect; hence many researchers have been asking the question “can cats provide emotional support?” While research is limited, cats have individual rights and privileges regarding the support that, for those who prefer cats, can significantly benefit those in need.

What kind of services can cats provide?

Cat as a service animal

Cats can emotional support animals and therapy animals, but some airlines will recognize cats as service animals.

Service Cats Under the ADA, only dogs and miniature horses qualify as service animals. This rule excludes other animals such as cats, guinea pigs, fish, reptiles, and amphibians from the definition of service animal entirely. This adjustment to the service animal definition was reasoned by the idea that limiting the number of species that can qualify will provide public accommodations and aid in the assurance of access for individuals with disabilities (DOT).

Some airlines will make an exception and accept cats as service animals. You can find out if your airline allows service cats by contacting your airline or checking the ESA policy for your airline here.

Emotional Support Cats – Emotional Support Animals aim to provide companionship and are usually not trained to handle people with disabilities. Because ESA’s are not required to be trained, these animals are not covered by the ADA and have no access to public spaces unless specifically allowed by the institution or owner. These animals don’t have any federal certification or registration standards for ESA’s, but these animals can be qualified to be ESAs through a person’s mental health professional. They can be qualified by determining whether the animal is necessary for the person with a disability and their mental health and has written a prescription or ESA letter stating the pet is required for the person’s home.

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Therapy Cats – Assisted-Animal Therapy allows institutions such as hospitals, retirement homes, schools, and mental institutions to install therapy programs for their residents. Therapy animals provide rehabilitative therapy with people who have physical, emotional, and cognitive impairments in a clinical or educational environment. No specific laws are governing the species that may work as therapy animals and can have a varying level of training (Int J Environ Res Public Health). Therapy cats can be trained under a non-profit organization and allowed in institutions for therapeutic purposes.

Assistance and Companion Cats – Cats can also qualify under the broader terminology of “assistance animals” and “companion animals.” Assistance animals a definition used by the Fair Housing Act as an encompassing term for service, therapy, support, and companion, can have specific training to help a person with a disability. Companion animals, another separate name related to ESA’s, have no specialized training and provide simply companionship. These animals can qualify under the assessment of a doctor or medical professional (USDA).

How effective are cats at emotional support?

cats for emotional support

Cats can bring joy and create positive emotions for people of all ages.

While cats can qualify for emotional support, therapy, and assistance/companion animals, researchers state that much more research is needed to fully determine the capabilities of cats as emotional support animals and therapy animals. Funding for research is reported to be much harder to obtain, even if some researchers state that they can be superior for researching topics such as diseases. In a New York Times article, a search result of Pub Med was conducted. In the database, it yielded 139,858 results for cats and 328,781 results for dogs. Google scholar results were 1,670,000 for cats and 2,850,000 for dogs, leading research for the development of cats as therapy or emotional support animals to be small in comparison to dogs (New York Times).

This study led to the conclusion that the presence of animals can reduce health problems such as cardiovascular risk and create positive emotions for patients while still needing more research for conclusive answers.

However, small cases where cats are studied, results show that there is a possibility of cats having the potential to be considered as therapy cats or emotional support cats. In one study, even if there were no formal protocols of interaction, patients had increased activity and enjoyed the cats’ presence. This study led to the conclusion that the presence of animals can reduce health problems such as cardiovascular risk and create positive emotions for patients while still needing more research for conclusive answers. In another study, parents with children who have an autism spectrum disorder reported positive comments about therapy cats for those with mild ASD, while those tested who have severe ASD reported the cats showing aggression, leading to the conclusion that cats adopted and raised can show more affection and less aggression to those with ASD (Frontiers Media).

Even as research leads to inconclusive answers, the practice of using cats for therapy, companionship, and emotional support is reported to be steadily gaining popularity. The AVMA reports that the Delta Society originally brought cats into nursing homes for therapy during the society’s 18th annual conference. Pet Partners, an official partner of the American Kennel Club, has program requirements for cats, among many other programs authorized by the AKC. Emotional support cats can be an excellent endeavor for those wanting emotional support and therapy, but more research is still needed to be conclusive about the effectiveness of cats in service roles.

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