“Cats can’t be assistance animals!”

Sadly, there is a perception that cats cannot be assistance animals. In the UK, there is a general awareness of assistance dogs, but nothing else, even though the law is not specific. In the USA, the Department of Justice shocked everyone, including the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, when it amended the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2011 to specifically exclude any animal but a dog.

Biologically, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The way that cats learn is very similar to the way that a dog, or any mammal, learns. And so long as cats have the physical ability to perform a task or behaviour, there is no reason why it cannot be taught.

The classification and taxonomy of assistance animals is a mess

Is your cat an assistance animal? An emotional support animal? A working cat? A therapy cat? A companion animal? Or a pet?

Globally, the worldwide coalition ADI (Assistance Dogs International) describe an assistance dog as:

a generic term for a guide, hearing, or service dog specifically trained to do three or more tasks to mitigate the effects of an individual’s disability.

The requirement that an assistance dog is required to do three or more tasks seems arbitrary, particularly when you consider that assistance dog owners in surveys time and time again indicate the importance of untrained behaviours and the confidence and emotional support their dogs give them.

(Update on 7 June 2002: Assistance Dogs International say elsewhere, ‘An assistance dog is a generic term for a guide, hearing, or service dog that is specifically trained to perform at least one task to mitigate the effects of an individual’s disability.’ So, maybe they are walking back that a dog must learn three or more tasks.)

My preferred definition is the one used in Australia’s Assistance animals and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). Section 9 describes an assistance animal as a dog or other animal that:

(a) is accredited under a State or Territory law to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effects of disability; or
(b) is accredited by an animal training organisation prescribed in the regulations; or
(c) is trained to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effect of the disability and meets standards of hygiene and behaviour that are appropriate for an animal in a public place.

I like this definition as part (c) puts the focus on the benefit that the animal delivers and the fact that it needs to be trained and act appropriately for a public place. These, surely, are the factors that matter?

Personally, I’m confident that Chloe meets either of these ‘assistance animal’ definitions.

Assistance dog charities are campaigning for a better legal definition in the UK, but we are unlikely to see a change anytime soon. So, it will continue to be down to owners, service providers, and members of the public to classify an animal as they see fit.

But, regardless of definition, employers, service providers, and others in the UK still have obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid discrimination and make reasonable adjustments.


Further reading