Dogs are the most well-recognized animals that serve as human helpers and disability and guide animals. But other animals can be trained as service animals too.
Miniature horses are becoming accepted as “mobility alternatives” for the visually impaired. Cats are also trained to be service animals.
Pat Gonser, founder of Pets and People: Companions in Therapy & Service, started doing therapy work with one of her cats in the 1990s. She says that many people do not like dogs, but they need a service animal. These people can use a service cat instead. These service felines are able to alert when there is imminent danger. To alert you, the cat may paw at you or sit on your chest.
Since there is no organization that trains service cats, Pets and People provides help for people that want to train their own cats. Gonser says that starting with a kitten is best. Using clicker training, a cat can be taught to alert the arrival of a seizure. Cats, just like dogs, have an innate sense of when seizures are coming. Kittens can also be taught to use a telephone when the owner is unable to call for help.
Some skeptics think cats are not inclined to such selflessness. “Certainly, some cats might circle around and really make it obvious to whoever else is there that there was a problem because they can sense the fluctuations in the energy,” says feline behavior consultant Carole Wilbourn of Manhattan. “But I don’t know that they could be trained to do it on command, because you know what cats are like.”
Gayle Knowlton, 49, of Tucson, Ariz., trained her first service cat more than a decade ago. Her most current one is Pushette Pudie - named for her less-than-shy demeanor - who Knowlton rescued at four days old from a drainage ditch during a downpour.
“I suffer from severe anxiety and panic attacks, and I have seizures because of it,” explains Knowlton, who didn’t want a service dog because, at the time, she was a vendor at cat shows, and the species shock would have been too much for her customers. When Pushette detects an impending seizure, “she becomes extremely guarded and won’t let anyone near us, and she strokes my face and gets me to focus directly on her.” This can often avert a seizure, Knowlton adds, because the interaction lowers her blood pressure.