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A brief information resource on assistance animals for the disabled

By Kristina Adams, Stacy Rice

Category Government Documents

Providing for the health of humans through animal interactions dates back many centuries. As an example, horseback riding is mentioned throughout history as a cure for various sicknesses including gout, neurological disorders and depression. Today, animals provide therapeutic benefits to humans with physical and mental illnesses as well as provide assistance to people with disabilities.

The most commonly recognized assistance animals are dogs. Due to their social nature, dogs are wonderful pets, companions, and protectors for many people. Dogs work closely with people in a variety of areas including law enforcement, search and rescue, and farming. As assistance animals, dogs provide help for the visually and hearing impaired, serve as an alert system for impending seizures, and offer additional strength and mobility for the physically disabled. Dogs also provide comfort for some people suffering emotional difficulties.

There are many other animal species that provide therapeutic benefits to people. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically defines a service animal as a "guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability." Some of these "other animals" that assist people with disabilities are monkeys, birds, pigs, and horses. An even greater number of animal species serve as therapy animals, including rabbits, hamsters, and snakes. [Editor's Note: In March 2011, the ADA definition of service animal changed as a result of a revision made by the Department of Justice. Under the revised regulation, a "[s]ervice animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual´s disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, pulling a wheelchair, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, retrieving items such as medicine or the telephone, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition." The law and its regulations also make an allowance for miniature horses. The full text of the Department of Justice ADA regulation on service animals is included below.]

This information resource was created in response to many of the questions the Animal Welfare Information Center receives about the laws relating to assistance animals. This document serves as a starting point in learning about types of assistance animals, the services they provide and the laws that affect them. Many specific questions are answered in a document created by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice -- .

Although many service animals wear special collars or harnesses, by law they are not required to wear special identification equipment. Therefore, some, but not all service animals wear special collars and harnesses. Also, some, but not all, are licensed or certified and have identification papers. For more information about service animals in places of business, see or


Deborah Maron

Date 2003
Publisher U.S. Department of Agriculture
Language English
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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. open access
  1. open access