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Unsung Heroes: Celebrating Assistance Animals

The first week in August is International Assistance Dog Week! The commemorative week is meant to honor the work of assistance dogs and their trainers, as well as to raise awareness about the invaluable services these animals provide to people in need.

There are anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 registered service dogs in the US, according to The Spruce Pets. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which governs the use of service and assistance animals for the disabled, does not require that the animals be registered.

While the true number of assistance animals is unknown, we do know that they are superheroes. They are highly-trained, well-mannered, and in many cases responsible for not only enhancing but saving the lives of people with certain illnesses or disabilities.

Categories of Assistance Animals

There are several categories of assistance animals.

  • Service animals are trained to carry out a specific task (such as guiding a blind person, providing mobility assistance, opening and closing doors, or alerting a deaf person that someone is at the door)

  • Medical alert animals are trained to alert their handler when he or she is about to experience a medical episode (such as an oncoming seizure, low blood sugar, or even a psychotic episode) or when it’s time to take medication. Some animals even call 911.

  • Emotional support animals provide companionship and assist people suffering from loneliness, depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

  • Therapy animals are trained to provide support in specific spaces, such as hospice, hospitals, nursing homes, disaster areas, and schools. Like emotional support animals, therapy animals aid in reducing stress, anxiety, fear, and depression.

Fun Fact: While some owners elect to do so, assistance animals (in any category) are not required to wear service vests.

Types of Animals That Provide Assistance

Not only are there no restrictions on the breed of dogs that can be trained to serve, but being an assistance animal is not a job reserved exclusively for dogs. Cats, birds, teacup pigs, miniature horses, capuchin monkeys, rats, ferrets, fish, and even snakes have been documented as service animals.

  • Birds alert deaf people when somebody is at the door.

  • Miniature horses provide mobility assistance and emotional support.

  • Capuchin (and other) monkeys can be trained to complete tasks around the home.

  • Snakes and ferrets can alert someone when a seizure is coming on.

  • Cats can reduce symptoms of PTSD.

  • Rats can provide emotional support and alert someone when it’s time to take medication.

  • Teacup pigs (as well as potbelly pigs, guinea pigs, hamsters, and llamas) can serve as therapy animals.

  • Fish (watching fish tanks) have been shown to slow heart rates, lower blood pressure, and reduce anxiety. This is why they’re often found in doctors’ offices.

Because there is no requirement to register support animals under ADA and no training necessary for animals not required to perform a specific medical or disability assistance task, any animal that provides relief from mental health symptoms can be considered an emotional support animal.

How Do Animals Increase Mental and Physical Well-Being?

According to the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), which conducted a study in 2018 on the efficacy of service dogs to treat PTSD symptoms, service animals have been proven to:

  • Lower overall symptoms of post-traumatic stress

  • Lower levels of depression

  • Increase levels of life satisfaction

  • Increase overall psychological well-being

  • Reduce feelings isolation and increase desire to participate in social activities

  • increase markers of resilience

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), some of the benefits of pet ownership include:

  • ​​Decreased blood pressure

  • Decreased cholesterol levels

  • Decreased triglyceride levels

  • Decreased feelings of loneliness

  • Increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities

  • Increased opportunities for socialization

DPFF sends our gratitude to all the animals and animal trainers that are contributing to the health and well-being of people across the country, and the world!

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