Grey British cat peeking out from behind a white table

Can a Cat Be a Service Animal?

J. Courtney Cunningham Attorney at Law April 25, 2024

The world of service animals is vast and varied.

Dogs, for the most part, have taken center stage as service companions, thanks to their loyalty, intelligence, and ability to learn complex tasks. However, amid countless tales of dogs aiding their handlers, a question often arises—could a cat, with its own distinctive qualities, serve as a service animal? 

Despite their reputations for independence and aloofness, cats have unique attributes that could potentially lend them to service roles.

But, as it stands, cats do not meet the federal criteria for service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In other words: No, cats cannot be service animals, but they can be emotional support animals (ESAs)

Understanding Service Animals and the ADA 

Service animals are defined and protected by the ADA—a law that ensures rights for individuals with disabilities. According to the Act, a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for individuals with disabilities.

The tasks performed by the service animal must be directly related to the person's disability. These tasks can include guiding people who are blind, alerting individuals who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, and even alerting others during a medical emergency. 

The ADA explicitly excludes cats (as well as other species) from the definition of a service animal.

In the eyes of the law, the unique contributions that only a dog can provide are what qualify them for the revered status of service animal. This exclusion is because dogs have traditionally performed their roles with exceptional success and reliability.

What Differentiates Service Animals from Other Companion Animals? 

Service animals are not the only animals that offer therapeutic value to their owners. It’s essential to differentiate between the three types of assistance animals: 

Service Animals: 

  • Are defined under the ADA guidelines

  • Are dogs only. 

  • Are trained to perform specific tasks related to a person's disability. 

  • Are able to access public places, businesses, and other spaces where pets are typically not allowed. 

Emotional Support Animals (ESAs): 

  • Serve an essential role in providing comfort and support. 

  • Do not require training for a specific task but need a letter from a qualified professional to verify the need for emotional support. 

  • Generally are not allowed in public places that aren't pet-friendly but can live in housing with no-pet policies. 

  • Can be any domesticated animal, including cats, dogs, bunnies, rats, and more. 

Therapy Animals: 

  • Provide therapeutic services, often in a social setting. 

  • Visit hospitals, schools, and other facilities to offer comfort and companionship to others, as well as community or organizational psychotherapy. 

  • Are categorized and regulated separately from service and emotional support animals. 

The distinction between these categories highlights the targeted and mission-critical nature of a service animal's duties, as well as the depth of training and specialization they undergo to meet those duties. 

Is There a Future Where Cats Are in Service Animal Roles? 

While the current ADA regulations do not recognize cats as service animals, the question of their potential is an intriguing one.

Cats have distinct personalities that can align with certain disabilities. Their heightened senses could be particularly valuable in scenarios that warrant alerts, such as with a person with epilepsy or in managing anxiety disorders. 

However, training a cat to respond to these needs with the same precision and reliability as a service dog is a significant challenge. The acceptance of service animals in public spaces demands predictability and consistency in behavior. Cats' independent nature and the difficulty in training them to perform specific work tasks are likely noted reasons for their exclusion. 

Nonetheless, cats can and do make substantial impacts on people's lives through the bond and companionship they offer. This impact is just not recognized within the scope of the ADA's service animal definition. 

Understand Your Rights and Options Around Service Animals and ESAs 

Cats, with their natural gifts, have the potential to provide aid to those in need.

However, the domain of service animals, as defined by the ADA, currently does not extend to our feline friends. It's a distinction that reflects both the unique suitability of dogs for service roles and the rigorous standards set forth to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities. 

While the concept of a "service cat" may remain an aspirational idea rather than current reality, the inclusivity and continuous evolution of the assistance animal discourse are worth fighting for. Each species' distinctive characteristics have their place in enriching and empowering the lives of those they serve.

Whether a cat's role is one of service, support, or heartfelt companionship, the bond they share with their human counterparts is a special and valuable one—and that is always worth celebrating. 

For more questions surrounding service animals and ESAs, get in touch with J. Courtney Cunningham, Attorney at Law. At my firm, I'm dedicated to fighting for the rights of those facing challenges with service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs) in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, The Villages. Let me advocate for you.