Cats as Emotional Support Animals

emotional-support-cat-768x402It’s no secret that our cats provide us with much-needed comfort and support. But for some people, the need goes a step further.

Emotional support animals (ESAa) are pets that provide companionship to those with emotional and mental disabilities. Organizations such as CertaPet help facilitate the process. According to CertaPet’s website: “For legal purposes, ESAs are considered companions offering mental and emotional support, as well as sometimes being trained to recognize specific symptoms and emotional occurrences.”

Services dogs vs. ESAs

In contrast, service animals are defined 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.” Their role is defined and protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They include specially trained guide dogs, seeing-eye dogs, hearing or signal dogs, psychiatric service dogs, signal response dogs, and seizure response dogs. And under ADA, only dogs qualify as service animals and their access to businesses, housing, schools, places of employment, and transportation (including airlines) is protected.

The rules on ESAs are less well defined. Along with dogs, they can include cats, and some unlikely critters such as ferrets, boa constrictors, parrots, miniature horses, pigs, monkeys, chickens, and even ducks. Those making use of these animals say that the animals sense when they’re about to have seizures, aid in mobility, and provide a sense of security.

Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals (also known as comfort animals) do not require training, nor do they have legal access to businesses. However, their access to housing and airline access is protected by the Fair Housing Authority (FHA) and Air Carrier Access Association (ACAA). That means that they are allowed within the cabins of planes without paying airline pet fees and that they are exempt from paying pet housing fees. The law requires that the handler have a letter of confirmation from a mental health professional explaining that the ESA provides therapeutic value to its owner.

Cats make excellent ESAs due to their size and their ability to bond to the caregivers. In terms of housing, they are clean, quiet, and non-intrusive. Personality, of course, is key.

CertaPet offers detailed information on how a cat can be registered as an ESA. The organization states, “Cats can provide the same love, compassion and support as any other Emotional Support Animal. Some people who aren’t ‘cat people’ may not understand, but a cat’s love can be just as unconditional as a dog’s. More than that, many mental health professionals recognize and report that the positive effects of cat ownership are just as considerable as dog ownership.”

Kelsey Matthews recently relocated to Las Vegas from Connecticut with her ESA, Cinder, who helps her with anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, and fibromyalgia. Cinder, who has an ID card, a certificate, and a vest through ESA Registration of America has helped her to live on her own at the age of 18. In accordance with the FHA and ACAA, he was able to fly in the cabin with her from Connecticut to Las Vegas and the $200 deposit was waived when she moved into her apartment.

CertaPet’s registration process is spelled out on its website. There’s an initial screening process, then contact with the organization’s licensed mental health professionals. A medical assistant will then complete the process with the applicant. According to its website, a letter from the health professional is all that’s required to verify that your cat is an ESA.

What kind of cat?

CertaPet lists Siamese, American Shorthair, American Bobtail, Ragdolls, and Maine Coons as the best purebreds to choose as ESAs. They are all intelligent, social, trainable, and are known for their companionship.

Emily Strong, CPBC, CPBT-KA, and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Association, does service dog and ESA training, often through shelters. She has a list of criteria an animal must meet to pass an assessment. When she determines that an animal has passed an assessment, she put them on hold at the shelter or rescue organization, then contacts her client.

She writes: “If they connect with the animal, they adopt them, then we begin training. So in many ways the right personality really depends on the client and what they connect with. But the assessment does require animals to be relatively non-reactive, recover quickly from a startle, not demonstrate any guarding tendencies, be calm around a wide variety of humans and other non-humans, allow handling, and not show a fear response to novel stimuli. Beyond that, though, I think a wide variety of personality types can be good ESAs, depending on what the client wants and needs.”

As with any opportunity, there are those who abuse it. Airlines have had to deal with a whole barnyard of animals that may or may not be properly designated as ESAs. Sitting next to a passenger with a pot-bellied pig may not be the most pleasant way to travel in quarters that are already tight. People who seek out emotional support animals need to keep in mind that their animals should be well trained and kenneled according to airline regulations. If you’re considering getting an emotional support animal, discuss it with your physician or therapist and research the online options. It’s more than just buying a vest. As much as we love our pets and want them with us at all times, there are circumstances where it’s just not appropriate to bring them along.

emotional support cats

Note: Although I am being compensated for this article, I conducted all due research and linked to various other sources.


About ExclusivelyCats
Sally Bahner is an expert in all aspects of cat care: Writer, consultant, speaker, instructor.

3 Responses to Cats as Emotional Support Animals

  1. amyshojai says:

    Great post! Cats make great ESA’s. Some offer the same “service” as dogs, even if not recognized for it. I recently connected with someone with diabetes who has a cat that alerts to blood sugar irregularities by sniffing her breath–self taught/trained. Interesting because I’ve another friend who has a diabetes-alert trained DOG that does exactly the same thing!

  2. tarnegolita says:

    Very interesting!! Cats are very restful animals to be around. 💚

  3. Really very helpful information. Thanks for sharing.

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