National Pet Day: The Importance of Service Animals 

April 10, 2023


April 11th is National Pet Day. The day was created by an animal advocacy group to recognize the important roles that pets play in many people’s lives. Of course, we all know about the companionship and unconditional love our pets provide. But did you realize that service animals play a critical role in helping countless people with health challenges lead full and healthy lives? In this article, we'll discuss the role of service animals, what they can do, and how they can help in a home care setting.

What is a Service Animal?

In short, the term ‘service animal’ describes animals that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Dogs are the most common service animals, having assisted people since at least 1927. Service animals can be used by people with physical disabilities, mental illnesses, emotional conditions, and other impairments to help them get around and live independently. 

While dogs are the most common species of service animal, many different animal species can be trained to perform tasks that aid individuals with disabilities—including pigs, cats, horses, monkeys and birds. Most of the time, service animals can be easily identified. Many wear special vests and/or harnesses and pay close attention to their handlers. However, special identification is not actually required.

Service animals should not be petted, fed or otherwise given attention while at work. It’s important to be respectful and allow these animals to do their jobs. They make a major difference in the lives of people living with disabilities and health conditions, and distractions from outside sources may take them away from the task at hand. Service animals play a vital role in helping their handlers manage medical conditions by providing companionship and assistance when symptoms flare up unexpectedly.

Different Types of Service Animals

A service animal is not the same thing as a pet—it's a working animal trained to assist people with disabilities. Still, many service animals form strong bonds with their handlers and provide unwavering love and support. Service animals can be categorized by the type of work they do and by the task they perform for their handler. Some examples of different types of services that service animals can provide include:

  • Allergy Detection Dogs
  • Autism Service Dogs 
  • Diabetic Alert Dogs
  • Guide Dogs
  • Hearing Dogs
  • Mobility Assistance Dogs
  • Psychiatric Service Dogs
  • Seizure Alert Dogs

What do Service Animals do?

Service animals provide assistance by performing tasks that their handlers would otherwise have difficulty doing for themselves. The tasks performed by service animals can include: 

  • alerting someone who is deaf or hard of hearing to sounds like honking horns or ringing doorbells 
  • helping someone who is blind or visually impaired to navigate safely
  • pulling a wheelchair 
  • assisting an individual who has difficulty walking up and down stairs
  • helping to calm a person during a panic attack 
  • smelling allergens in food 
  • reminding someone to take medication
  • retrieving items such as food or medicine 
  • alerting individuals with diabetes when blood glucose levels are too high or too low 
  • providing physical support and balance to individuals with mobility impairments

Looking at this list, it’s pretty amazing to think about all the ways that service animals can enrich the lives of people facing limitations with their health and mobility.

What about emotional support animals?

You may have heard of an emotional support animal before and wondered if there was a difference between that and a service animal. The answer is yes, these are two distinct concepts and should not be confused. 

Emotional support animals are not trained to complete specific tasks to support their handlers, like service animals are. However, emotional support animals can provide aid in the form of emotional assistance that enhances the well-being of their owners and enables them to:

  • develop supportive relationships with others through companionship
  • develop a greater feeling of independence
  • increase confidence in social settings
  • find more motivation for self-improvement

These types of animals are otherwise referred to as therapy animals or emotional support pets. While some of their roles overlap, they should not be confused with service animals.

Take Away: Animal companionship can help support positive outcomes in physical and mental health for people living with a wide range of conditions.

Service animals in home healthcare

Service animals can be crucial and even life-saving companions for their owners, especially for those managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, hearing loss, epilepsy, asthma, autism, lupus and cerebral palsy. They can also assist those with limited mobility due to chronic pain.

Service animals, specifically service dogs, have distinct protection under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), a law that bans discrimination based on disability. The ADA requires that all businesses and public places allow service animals to accompany their handlers on their premises. Knowing the laws and proper procedures regarding service dogs helps healthcare providers to deliver more patient-centered care. 

Interacting with Service animals: dos and dont's:

If you are an HHA or other type of home care worker, your client may use a service animal to help them manage a chronic condition or disability. Practice the following tips to make sure that the service animal is able to do their job:  

  • Don’t touch, talk, feed or distract the service animal while they are in their work gear (special harnesses or vests). 
  • Speak to the handler before attempting to pet or interact with a service animal.
  • Don’t instruct the service animal to sit or give it any other commands–leave this to the animal’s handler.
  • Yield to service animals and their handlers when crossing the street or walking on the sidewalk.
  • When walking with a guide or service dog team, ask the handler where the best place for you to stand is. If you stand to the left of a service dog, they may become distracted or confused. 
  • Never feed a service animal. They are fed special, healthy diets meant to keep them alive and able to work for as long as possible.
  • Don’t tease or disrupt a service animal while it is sleeping. 
  • Never let a service animal out of the house without supervision. 

One of the most difficult aspects of supporting a loved one dealing with chronic illness is being able to know if they’re okay when we can’t be around. Not only are service animals trained to provide the individualized assistance your loved ones need when they’re alone, but they also provide unmatched companionship; a bond that provides emotional support that everybody needs, but especially those living with potentially life-limiting illnesses and conditions. 

Owning a service animal can bring significant benefits to the quality of life of individuals with physical disabilities and impairments. These benefits may have considerable implications for individuals with disabilities, society and the economy by promoting independence, learning and working abilities.

This National Pet Day, take a moment to reflect on the amazing impact that animals can have on our lives. From trusted, loving companions to life-saving heroes, service animals show how humans and animals can work together to encourage improved health outcomes for the chronically ill and disabled.

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