09/01/2011 - Articles

Animal House: Companions, Therapy, and Service

By: John Russo, Jr., PharmD


Mom had a different view of pets. Dad had a soft heart. He brought strays home that became companions — living in our house under her rules. The kitchen marked the extent of their welcome, and they slept in the basement.

For most of us, the animals that share our lives are pets. But animals fulfill other functions. “Animal therapy,” for example, helps us overcome mental, psychological, and physical disabilities.

For example:

  • 2001: Cody the Labrador helped 14 children with multiple disabilities improve their attention span, physical movement, communication, and compliance
  • 2003: Children increased their reading level by 2 to 4 grade levels after a 13-month reading program that included therapy dogs
  • 2004: Adaptive functioning among middle-aged schizophrenic patients improved when the therapy dog sought affection


The evidence for these successes is anecdotal, and the absence of rigorous research has lead Dr. Hal Herzog in his book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, to caution that pets might serve some therapeutic functions. The issue is figuring out which ones, and more rigorous research will be needed to accomplish this.

The bottom line.
True enough for people trying to overcome a well-defined condition. For the rest of us, studies aren’t needed to confirm that we smile when our dog meets us at the door. We relax when the cat deems it’s time to be petted. And we feel needed when we fill their dishes with kibble.

Sometimes, companionship is the cure for what ails you.

But there’s more, especially as we grow older, “service animals” offer a third tier of support. Are you disabled in any way? Might you benefit from a service animal? Things to consider are covered in the article below.

FAQ: The Essential Service Animal Primer
Do you disabled and require assistance with daily activities? Here are some things to know about service animals.

What is a service animal?
A service animal performs tasks that help disabled people live independently. Guide dogs, signal dogs, or other animals trained to provide assistance are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a service animal regardless of whether they are licensed or certified by a state or local government.

What can a service dog do for me?
They guide the visually impaired, alert the hearing impaired, retrieve dropped items, open doors, and assist their handler with balance.

Can animals other than dogs be service animals?
Yes, many animals can be trained to provide these services, including monkeys, miniature horses, cats, ducks, and goats.

What’s the difference between a service animal and a pet?
There are distinct differences. The functions provided by service animals are a necessity. A pet, by comparison, is kept for companionship or pleasure. Some people think that a service animal might also be a pet. Under the law, this is not true.

Who is responsible to care for my service animal?
You are responsible. You must obey local leash and vaccine laws, and keep your animal under control at all times.

Are there limitations on where my service animal and I can go?
No, the ADA requires businesses to admit people with disabilities and their service dogs onto their premises. You must not be charged a fee or segregated from other customers.

Must I identify my service animal?
No, but you may be asked if the animal performs a service. Beyond that, it's illegal to question the validity of a service animal or insist on proof.

What’s the responsibility of the business owner for my service animal?
None. A business isn’t required to provide care, food, or a special location for the animal.

Under what circumstances might my service animal be excluded from a business establishment?
The animal can be excluded if its behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or when the animal's actions result in a fundamental alteration to the nature of the business (e.g., dog barking during a movie).

How do I learn more about service animals?
Start with the Delta Society website to learn more about training programs, getting an animal, and other important information.

Created on: 09/01/2011
Reviewed on: 09/01/2011

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