Unexpected Service Animals That Actually Help a Lot
Everyone knows about service dogs, but they're far from the only animals who have been used to perform helpful tasks for people throughout the years. Service dogs weren't recognized legally until the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was passed in 1990. And though canines and miniature horses can be officially registered as service animals, that could soon change.
That's still fairly recent, so there's plenty of time for other animals to be recognized down the line. Who will be next? Trained frogs? Service sloths? So far, these are the most promising potential service animals who have already proven their worth in one way or another.
Miniature horses are one of the handful of species aside from dogs that can be certified as full-fledged service animals. They can be trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. As long as the mini horse is housebroken, easy to control and small enough to enter a facility, they're given the same privileges as a licensed service dog.
These horses are best at providing guiding services for those with visual impairments, but they can also give physical support, retrieve items and serve as emotional support animals. Guide dogs remain the more popular option because mini horses require substantial outdoor space and incur more expensive care costs.
Donkeys are not permitted to be licensed service animals, but they're ideal for therapy. They're naturally calm and outgoing, which is the perfect temperament for a therapy animal. They're also patient, even with loud noises and sudden movements.
The peaceful personality of donkeys has a grounding effect on patients, helping agitated children and anxious adults feel more centered and calm. Donkey therapy programs may involve therapeutic riding, cart driving classes or simply grooming the animals.
A pot-bellied pig named Elvis was once used as a service animal by a teenager named Alisha Doolittle. The visually impaired teen struggled to get her outgoing ham classified as a service animal, but pigs are actually closer to humans in terms of cognition than dogs.
Some advocates are pushing for miniature pigs to be recognized as emotional support animals. Pigs are typically recognized as livestock, but one woman in California succeeded in getting her two pigs registered as emotional support animals, allowing her to keep them even though her city's local ordinances forbid the keeping of livestock.
As for the future, there may be hope for service pigs in certain circumstances. Pigs can be trained to detect low blood sugar in diabetic patients, as well as to warn epileptic patients of oncoming seizures.
Keeping a monkey as a pet is a terrible idea for most people, but trained monkeys have been used to perform tasks far beyond what an average dog can handle. Specifically, capuchin monkeys have been used to help people with mobility impairments or paralysis from spinal cord injuries gain more independence.
Capuchin monkeys have been trained to grab out-of-reach items, turn pages, use simple tools and even set up movie night. Monkeys also live up to 40 years, so they make ideal companions. At present, they aren't recognized as service animals, but 35 capuchins are helping disabled people in 13 different states, all trained through a program called Helping Hands.
Cats may not be legally recognized as service animals, but they're common for emotional support. Owners are well aware that cats can offer support far beyond what the law acknowledges. They can be trained to open doors, hit 911 on speed dial or notify hearing-impaired owners about certain sounds, like the doorbell ringing.
With professional training, some cats can learn to predict seizures as well. As an added benefit, cats help provide routine and structure for owners. This is a big help for people with depression or dementia who thrive with a consistent daily routine.
Thanks to their high brain-to-body weight ratio and extreme intelligence, dolphins have been successfully trained to help patients in assisted therapy programs. They can help those with physical, psychological or congenital conditions with speech and motor skill development.
Dolphin-assisted therapy has made a world of difference for patients with autism and Down syndrome. Training is rigorous, but once completed, the dolphins are ready to socialize with patients, assist them in therapy exercises and provide emotional support.
The experience is one of a kind, but it's also hard to come by thanks to the cost and complications associated with dolphin therapy. There are only a handful of facilities that have the budget to house, care for and train dolphins, as well as to hire human physical therapists and psychologists to work alongside them.
Alpacas aren't the most obvious choice for trained animal assistants, but these South American fluff balls are incredible support creatures. They're gentle, calm and their soft, downy wool is comforting to anyone who has a chance to pet them. As therapy animals, alpacas are perfect for promoting a sense of peace and helping patients develop interpersonal skills.
Guide dogs perform tasks that are visible on the outside, but alpacas provide emotional rehabilitation that's just as important. Therapy programs guide kids through the ins and outs of alpaca care to help them build trust in others and themselves, as well as to develop a sense of purpose. Llamas can also serve as therapy animals, but alpacas are preferred because they're smaller and less intimidating.
Forget crackers. Polly is helpful for so much more than sharing snacks. Parrots are a huge help to patients with psychiatric disorders due to their unique ability to speak. Not even service dogs can verbally communicate with owners, but parrots can.
One man named Jim Eggers from St. Louis uses a talking parrot named Sadie to stay calm during manic episodes. Sadie also helps remind him about household tasks and she's impressively empathetic for a bird. Just the act of handling a bird is calming, but trained therapy animals go above and beyond that. Sadie proves that an animal doesn't have to be legally labeled for service to serve. Some birds are even used in prison rehabilitation programs and nursing homes.
Ferrets have gone viral on TikTok for their amusing antics. Despite their tendency to run around like kindergarteners on caffeine and then crash into a coma-like snooze fest, ferrets make superb emotional support animals. Their bubbly personalities are irresistible and they thrive off of spending time with their owners.
Just petting, carrying and playing with a ferret can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. They're not going to be helping anyone cross a highway anytime soon, but the emotional bond they develop with owners is a service in and of itself.
An emotional support snake sounds unlikely, but one man did the unthinkable: He trained his boa constrictor to indicate when he's about to have a seizure. The helpful squeeze in the right direction gives him enough time to take his medication or lie down to prevent injury.
That's an isolated case, but plenty of people consider holding a snake to be soothing. They're not slimy, contrary to popular belief, and the slow movements of some species, like ball pythons and boas, are naturally calming. They're also extremely low maintenance compared to most other emotional support pets and they're completely hypoallergenic.
So what really counts as a service animal? In our book, if an animal is providing a human being with an act of service that improves their quality of life, they count.