Animals Who Help Humans

a woman in a wheelchair petting a black service dog.

As any animal lover will tell you, there’s no substitute for the unconditional love of a pet. Pets enrich humans’ lives, bringing comfort, fun, playfulness and more to their owners and households. Animals can also contribute significantly to the safety, security and well-being of humans with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. While most of us are aware of the roles guide dogs play for visually impaired individuals, these dogs aren’t the only type of animals that provide valuable service to humans in need.  Here’s what you need to know to decide what might be the right type of pet for you or your loved one.

 Service Animals

These animals — dogs and occasionally, miniature horses — are trained to help people with physical disabilities and serious psychiatric disabilities to perform “major life tasks.” According to the National Service Animal Registry, these tasks include “bathing, dressing, shaving, preparing a meal, and going to the restroom, performing manual tasks, eating, sleeping, standing, walking, lifting, reaching, bending, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, and working.” After the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008, which became law in 2009, the list of major life tasks grew to include “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive (procreation) functions.”

Individuals may have their own animals trained to become service animals, or they may apply for a service animal through the many organizations that train service animals. Though the benefits of obtaining a service animal are great — independence, safety and the ability to function in a variety of situations such as school and work environments more effectively — the cost of obtaining a service animal can be exorbitant. According to Service Dog, “Depending on your location, specialized service dogs can run upwards of $25,000 dollars.” Fortunately, there are organizations that can help with the cost. For more information about financial assistance, visit My Assistance Dog

Therapy Animals

Though often confused with service animals, therapy animals (typically dogs) aren’t trained to help people with life tasks. Rather, they are meant to “provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with learning difficulties,” says NSAR.

There are three categories of therapy animals:

Therapeutic visitation animals are the most common type of therapy animals. Accompanied by their owners, these animals visit places such as medical and rehabilitation facilities raising patients’ spirits and soothing their feelings of anxiety and loneliness. In fact, Disabled World confirms “studies have been pursued that have demonstrated a decrease in both the stress levels and blood pressure of people during visits by therapy dogs.”

Animal Assisted Therapy animals work with physical and occupational therapists as part of their patients’ treatment plans. Frequently, these animals work in rehabilitation facilities and help patients to improve their mental, physical, social and emotional functioning. According to CRC Health Group, animal-assisted therapy goes way beyond just enjoying an animal’s companionship. It “involves specific therapeutic goals, strategies and outcomes measures. Therapeutic experiences can include walking, brushing, petting and caring for an animal, as well as processing the experience of trying to achieve a given task.”

Facility therapy animals are usually found in nursing homes where they are trained to watch over patients who are mentally ill or have Alzheimer’s disease. These animals live at the facilities where they work and are cared for and handled by staff members there.

 Emotional Support Animals

These animals provide emotional support just by being near the people who need them. To legally qualify for an ESA, individuals must carry a diagnosis of emotional disability given by a licensed mental health professional and have a prescription (letter) to verify this. ESAs can fly with their owners, and in many cases, landlords and property managers are legally required to waive laws prohibiting pets from living in their properties. For additional information about these regulations visit NSAR.