What Kind of Animal Is It?

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I offer programs on emergency pet prep. and critter body language.  I have a new offering that delves into the he confusing world of different critter classifications.

There are an average of 150 million pet cats and dogs in this country but many animal lovers share their homes with other species ranging from hamsters to bunnies, amphibians and reptiles.  Of course many outdoor dwellers are loved and cherished just as dearly and may, by their guardians, be considered pets - be they chickens, piglets, goats, or horses.

In this sense, a label is, very much, in the eye of the beholder.  For many, ‘companion’ animals refer to household pets and the veterinary industry tends to use them interchangeably.  But there are several other classifications of animals that can be even more confusing.

Most people are familiar with seeing eye and even hearing ear dogs that assist those who are vision or hearing impaired.  But there are, in reality, all kinds of ‘working’ animals!  Many – but not all of them – help people with disabilities.  Of course, there’s a lot of different kinds of disabilities; sometimes they are easy to see but often they’re hidden.

‘Service’ animals are trained to do specific tasks for their people.  Sometimes, but not always, they’re highly trained and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to get them ready for service; others are trained by their own person.  There’s no certification that makes an animal a ‘service’ animal; the term comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  And, as of a few years ago, it limits ‘service’ animals to dogs and sometimes miniature horses.  The ADA affords people who require the help of service animals to have their animals accompany them where ordinary ‘pets’ are not allowed to go like businesses and restaurants.  Businesses can only ask if the animal is a ‘service’ animal and what tasks it’s trained to do.  They can’t force the animal to show it or get nosey about the person’s medical condition, but they do have the right to expect the animal to be well behaved and can ask the person to remove the animal if it makes a mess.  <Learn more here.>

In the housing industry, which I worked in and around for nearly twenty years, housing laws are very different.  The Fair Housing Act is much broader and does not include the training requirement that the ADA does.  Here the words ‘assistance’ animal are typically used, but it doesn’t really matter what the animal is called.  Most any critter can be an ‘assistance’ animal – not just dogs and cats, but gerbils, bunnies, snakes…  I’m even come across tales of a renowned assistance iguana and an assistance opossum!  Under this law any animal that does just about anything for a person with a disability legally isn’t a ‘pet.’  Examples such as ‘depression kitties’ and other ‘emotional support’ animals used for lots of different conditions including the PTSD warriors may suffer from and the trauma of rape others deal with.  Housing providers who don’t ordinarily allow ‘pets’ very often must allow ‘assistance’ animals through a process called reasonable accommodation and verification.  <Learn more here.>

Some people refer to those ‘emotional support’ animals as simply ‘support’ animals and even ‘companion’ animals.  And some people call ‘service’ and ‘assistance’ animals ‘pets’ by mistake.  And there are yet other ‘working’ animals that aren’t necessarily protected by laws such as ‘therapy’ animals – everything from dogs to llamas – that are invited to visit nursing homes and hospitals.  Other ‘therapy’ animals assist survivors following traumatic events like mass shootings or natural disasters.  Yet other working animals help different professionals such as police K9 dogs, different kinds of search and rescue animals, and of course security dogs.

The crux of the matter is context – what industry you’re in or which set of laws are in play.  Of course, it can be impossible to tell if a critter’s an ordinary ‘pet’ or not because there’s nothing that necessarily marks an animal as one described by this law or that.  There’s no definitive registry of disability-related or other ‘working’ animals; specialty vests are easy to come by; and the various laws in question don’t require any certification.

It is one of those things in life that’s more complex than most ever imagine.  What’s shameful is that some people actually abuse the laws designed to protect those who really need it.  On the other hand, it’s wonderful that so many critters have such important jobs, especially those that offer a variety of aid to those with all kinds of disabilities.

I have rash of winter classes coming up this term across the metro area, including ‘What Kind of Animal – Service, Therapy, or Pet?’ on January 31st at Chemeketa in Salem.  If you’re interested in this or any of my critter classes visit www.JoBecker.weebly.com/animals-in-disasters.html for details.


Jo Becker is an Oregon-based speaker and writer who takes an entertaining, personable approach to educating audiences and readers.  Regardless of topic or industry, Jo’s aim is to inform, empower, and inspire with historical and relatable context, understandable concepts, and bottom line considerations. www.JoBecker.weebly.com/animals-in-disasters.html