Service Cat: Can a Cat Be a Service Animal?

By: Kathryn Anderson Updated: October 14, 2022

service cat young girl cuddling with her emotional support cat

We have all heard about service dogs, and of course the occasional miniature horse as a service animal. But what about a service cat? We know that cats make an amazing impact as emotional support animals, but does a service cat actually exist?


Understanding the Difference Between Emotional Support Cats, Therapy Cats, and Service Animals

The lines are often blurred between the roles and characterizations of the various types of assistance and ‘working’ animals. Fine legal distinctions are upheld however between emotional support, therapy, and service animals. It is therefore imperative that we clarify the differences.

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs)

Emotional support cats, simply put, are all about providing companionship, comfort, security, and love. They help people suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, or a mental or emotional disability. They live with their human and are usually constant companions.

Their presence assures relief from the symptoms of the emotional or mental disability. Emotional support animals do not require any special training. However, training an emotional support dog in basic obedience is always a good idea!

Many suitable pets are assigned as emotional support animals, and your cat may be one. Only a very few ESAs are however acceptable according to the ADA rules for housing.

While dogs are the most common type of ESAs, since they help with reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental or emotional disabilities, cats make good emotional support animals too. Some breeds of cats are better than others at providing support, and you would do your best to research accordingly.

Therapy Animals

Therapy Cats do not live with the people they assist. These cats are brought into public places like assisted living, medical establishments, and schools, to work with patients or residents as required.

Therapy cats are working cats, whose owners volunteer their time in whichever facilities will benefit from their company, attention, and love. Cats read human body language remarkably well and know when people need extra love.

Therapy animals are therefore categorized into:

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT): Cats in therapy programs assist people undergoing physical therapy after surgery or accidents, or while regaining fine motor control skills in their limbs. Simply holding or petting a cat can play an important role in the rehabilitation process. This form of therapy includes interactions with the cat as part of a structured treatment plan.

Animal-Assisted Activities Therapy (AAAT): This refers to any instance where a therapy cat supports patients, whether in an assisted-living facility or nursing homes. Trained handlers or psychologists on-site use the therapy cats as a reassuring presence for the residents and to provide comfort and support where needed.

Therapeutic visitation is the most common means of animal therapy. Pets “visit” people under the supervision of their handlers at rehabilitation centers, hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, schools, or even prisons!

Therapy animals are allowed in certain facilities only with the permission and upon invitation. They do not enjoy additional rights regarding air travel, no-pet housing, or establishments that are not pet-friendly.

therapy cat taking part in animal assisted therapy

Service Animals

Service animals are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

Other species of animals, (with the exceptions of the occasional miniature horse) whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals. This definition immediately rules out cats. Only dogs and miniature horses are recognized as service animals.

What comes to mind first when thinking about service animals are guide dogs for the visually impaired. A psychiatric service dog is however also among the types of service dogs. These dogs receive specialized training in order to assist their handler with a specific mental illness or psychiatric disability, for example, schizophrenia, autism, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These dogs help with specific tasks to mitigate their handler’s disabilities. Service animals have to be well behaved and socialized and may accompany their owners to all public areas and private businesses.

Who Needs Service Animal Registration When You Can Get an ESA Letter? 

Not everyone in need of support for emotional disabilities requires a fully trained service animal. Excellent emotional support and companionship are provided by any pet who fulfills the role of an ESA.

Bear in mind that it is never the animal who is registered as an ESA, but rather the person who is diagnosed and prescribed the ESA.

The only requirement for the assignation of an ESA letter is to be diagnosed accordingly by a licensed medical health practitioner (LMHP) in your state. If you are considering getting an ESA, why not try CertaPet’s free online 5-minute pre-screening? If your answers show that you may be eligible for an ESA, we will connect you with a LMHP in your state.

Can a Cat Be a Service Animal? Let’s Have a Look

A service animal is trained to assist persons with disabilities in a way that will allow the person to function satisfactorily or to help in a medical crisis. Right now, the American With Disabilities Act only considers dogs and very occasionally miniature horses to being service animals.

This doesn’t mean that a cat can’t carry out many service animal-type tasks. They are in fact far more trainable than people realize. Sadly, however, according to the restrictions stated in the ADA, a cat cannot be a service animal. There is no such thing as a legal service cat.

The Type of Service Animals Recognized by the ADA 

The ADA is a very important piece of legislation that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. The Act allows people with service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs, to bring them into public places despite there being a no-pet policy in place. Considering the important job these dogs have, it’s important that they constantly accompany their human.

The ADA does not protect emotional support animals or therapy animals. Remember, service dogs have received specific training and are therefore expected to know how to behave in public and of course, always be alert and focused on the job at hand.

They Can’t Be Service Cats, But They Can Be ESAs and Therapy Animals 

young girl drawing with a white cat in animal assisted activities therapy

So your feline superhero and constant companion cannot be a service cat. But, many cats are born to be ESAs and therapy animals. Emotional support cats make great therapy cats. And vice versa.

If your cat improves your mental and emotional health, you can make them a therapy animal. An important aspect of an ESA is that the animal and the owner enjoy a special relationship that offers genuine emotional support and wellbeing. This sounds like any cat we have ever witnessed interacting with their human.

Cats as therapy animals would need to fit the mold and as such should be:

  • Comfortable wearing a leash and harness.
  • Cool and calm no matter the environment.
  • In excellent health.
  • On a diet that excludes raw food.
  • Suitably trained.

The Federal Law That Protects Your ESA Cat

There is a Federal law that protects emotional support animals called the Fair Housing Act (FHA).

ESAs must be accommodated with their owner under the FHA, without being subjected to a pet deposit.

The Beneficial Impact That Cats Can Have On People’s Lives 

Certain breeds such as the Ragdoll cat make excellent companions. People who have trouble associating with others may find cats better to get along with. Research proves the benefits of holding or petting a cat in people with mental and emotional disabilities, anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

Oxytocin (OT) plays an important role in social bonding in both animals and humans. Studies show increased OT levels and associated reduced stress and anxiety when humans interact with cats. Cats don’t mind just being there when they’re needed. They don’t need to be walked or exercised, just loved.

CertaPet’s Role in Helping People Get Their ESA Letter 

CertaPet wants to make it easier for people with a disability to get their ESA letters. Having an ESA letter means that you can constantly have the comfort of your canine or feline companion with you. By taking our pre-screening, you can find out whether you qualify.

If you do, we will connect you with a LMHP in your state.

young child kissing their esa cat

Pets Should Always Be There to Provide Comfort and Support to Their Hoomans

With an ESA letter, you are assured that your constant companion can be just that. No matter where you live or how many times you might need to catch a flight, your emotional support cat can be at your side. There may be no such thing as a service cat, but an emotional support cat may be all you will ever need.

Common Questions on Service Cat

Do I need to train my cat in order for it to be an ESA? 

Can I register my Persian Cat as a service cat?

How do I go about getting an ESA letter for my cat?

Is a service cat, ESA, and therapy cat the same?

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