Puppy (and Kitty, and Birdie, and Other) Love: People with Disabilities and Their Animal Companions

Hello again, readers,

As it is still February, I am continuing this month’s series about love in the lives of persons with disabilities. As you might recall, last week’s post, about whether love was automatically an obligation when a PWD was involved, was sort of “heavy.” Thus today, I thought I would treat my readers to something more light-hearted, although it is still a serious issue at its core. Today, I want to talk about PWDs and the companion animals who often make their lives brighter and better.

Many studies have proven that people, whether or not they have disabilities, are generally healthier and live longer when they have pets. Now, for a long time, I was not a pet owner. I was and still am fearful of most dogs, despite the fact that my younger brother has two of them, thanks to a childhood incident. I was also hesitant around many other animals because in my experience, they made quick movements and seemed unpredictable.

However, I did, in the past few years, find myself increasingly drawn to cats. For those of you out there who are not cat people, bear with me. They are generally quieter and more independent than dogs. They’re not quite as prone to jumping and licking, and in my opinion, at least, their vocalizations are not as intimidating as dogs’. So I began dropping hints about adopting one, until a beautiful female calico showed up on our porch one day and beat my family and me to the punch. She’s not a fully indoor cat and thus is only with me for parts of the day, but she does make me feel needed, affectionate, and loved. Her name is Clarice.

Clarice is not what is legally referred to as a “service animal.” She doesn’t perform tasks for me that would make living with CP easier. (If she did, I’d be shocked–one downside to cats is that, all that independence means they aren’t as easy to “train.”) But having her with me has reminded me how beneficial animals can be to people with disabilities, and so I write this post as a proponent of that. I also write it in order to familiarize readers with the phenomenon of service/companion animals (which I am also just now learning about), the pros and cons of “animal helpers,” as I have heard them called, and so forth.

So, first off, what is a service animal, and what is the difference between one of those and a “companion” or a “therapy animal?” As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) a service animal is not a pet (that’s why I’ve been referring to animals as companions here). These are working dogs (usually it’s dogs, but I have seen or heard of other PWDs who work with animals like cats, pygmy horses, or even some breeds of monkey, such as capuchin). According to the ADA, they can be trained as seeing-eye animals, as well as hearing animals, or an animal who lets his or her owner know when sounds occur. If you’re familiar with the television series Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye, her dog Levi is a hearing dog.

These animals may also help PWDs with daily tasks such as opening doors, getting items from counters, or responding to seizures, among many other things. Most of them wear identification such as a special collar, and businesses are prohibited from ever discriminating against customers because they bring service animals to the premises. Furthermore, the ADA stipulates that a PWD and service animal must be allowed to go anywhere in an establishment that a person without a disability can go–they are not to be segregated.

Therapy animals are somewhat different, though their name often has the same connotation as “service animal.” These are usually the actual pets, like dogs, cats, and rabbits or birds, that you see, who have been trained to work in hospitals, nursing homes, or other such places. These are the animals who are often connected to a specific pet therapy program in a community, and who have owners who do refer to them as pets. They can provide comfort, companionship, and often motivation–for example, by coming alongside a child who has work to do in physical therapy and joining him or her in the activity. The laws are not as stringent when it comes to therapy animals, but the ADA still prohibits discrimination against a PWD based upon the presence of a therapy animal. As with service animals, the Fair Housing Act also protects PWDs and their therapy animals, but unlike with service animals, certification that the animal is “needed to assure the person’s well-being” may be required.

There is also a type of animal that helps PWDs known as an Emotional Support Animal, or ESA. These animals are not as heavily trained as service animals because they may not perform physical tasks for their handlers. But, their handlers may have experienced severe psychological trauma, such as abuse, neglect, PTSD, or other issues. That’s where this type of animal comes in, providing comfort, reassurance, and psychological strength to the handler. Often, having something to provide care for and to focus on can help individuals with psychological disabilities cope more effectively and/or rebuild their lives. Again, laws pertaining to the fair treatment of persons with disabilities who own ESAs aren’t as stringent as those pertaining to service animals, but the ADA does cover them.

Of course, as beneficial and uplifting as the relationship of a PWD to an animal can be, there are some pitfalls worth considering before and even during the time that you might have one in your home. These include:

Fear that Animals are Being Enslaved. Personally, I don’t agree that training an animal to serve an individual is “enslaving” it. As long as the animal is treated well and given tasks realistic to its breed, personality, and other factors, I don’t see a lot of logic in this argument. However, some people and groups, such as PETA, see service training as unfair to the animal. Other people who don’t have ties to such groups may also argue that by pairing a PWD with a service animal, you are giving him or her an “easy out” (McKenna doesn’t need a dog–she needs to learn to open doors on her own…even if her hands will not easily do so). I’m not even going to respond to that; it’s the same argument people are making when they say, “Clint needs a goal of washing dishes 20 minutes after eating in his Individualized Habitation Plan.” As we’ve discussed, that argument is full of holes.

Possibility of Aggression/Over-Bonding. This was a concern raised in an article I read while studying special education and disability needs in graduate school. Ideally, an animal would be trained not to respond aggressively unless appropriate (example: a person trying to attack his or her handler). But this can be a concern with certain breeds of animals, even those who seem well-trained, so do your homework. And, as I have touched on many times, no relationship is a substitute for human interaction. That’s why humans live together on this planet. So, parents and other loved ones: if your loved one with a disability has, and is close to, a service animal or other animal companion, please don’t assume they’re getting all the “relationship” they need. They still need you. I love Clarice, but let’s face it, I don’t speak cat.

Use of the PWD and His or Her Animal for Inspiration Discrimination/Personal Gain. First, let me go on record as saying: I have absolutely no problems with a PWD and an animal developing a close relationship. I have no problem with the acknowledgment that the person and his or her animal are friends or in tune with each other–that’s what a good relationship is. I also have zip problems with an animal helping a person to overcome great obstacles, or with others acknowledging that. For example, if a veteran who has PTSD hasn’t spoken in six months, and then begins to interact with people again because his or her dog or cat helped out? Great! If, as I once saw on Dogs 101, an Afghan hound helps a seriously ill young girl get well, simply by lying at her side and performing comforting gestures? Fine again.

But what I do have a problem with, is people who take these stories and take the, well, human interest out of it. That is, taking away the resilience, the indomitable nature, the chutzpah, of the human and animal spirit, and reducing that relationship to a cutesy, sugar-sweet “boy/girl and their dog” story. One recent offender, you may have seen in the local news. A seven-year-old boy named Owen and his Anatolian shepherd Haatchi are now the stars of a short documentary titled, I am not kidding you, A Boy and His Dog. The focus of the documentary is that Owen, who has a rare genetic disorder that keeps his muscles “in a state of painful tension,” was scared of strangers and afraid to do almost anything until Haatchi came along. Haatchi, who also has physical disabilities, is referred to as “crippled.” I’m sorry–I don’t care if he’s a dog. That term is offensive.

Now, again, am I bashing Owen and Haatchi’s relationship? No stinking way. These two are a great pair. But the media pared that story down so that you didn’t see Owen as a strong, capable person, with or without Haatchi. You didn’t see Owen as much of a person, and you didn’t see Haatchi as much of a dog. The story was pared down to the “awww” factor. So, be aware that service animals can be used as a way to subtly, “kindly” discriminate–and then don’t be the one perpetrating the misdeed.

Despite concerns like these, however, pets can and do provide companionship, responsibility, fun, and love to PWDs just like they do for those without disabilities. A disability is no excuse to deprive an individual of this type of experience (see the December 2012 archives, the post entitled “Give Me a Break,” for more on this). So, as a new cat-lover and a proponent of the relationships between animals and PWDs, I’ll close with this question:

Have you hugged your furry friend today? (P.S.–Feathered and finned friends can be harder to hug, but you can find your own methods of appreciation. Perhaps singing along with their chirping, or a new little castle for the tank)?

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