Service and Emotional Support Animals Can Make Life Easier for Seniors

Service and Emotional Support Animals for Seniors

When was the last time you saw a service animal? They are easy to spot – you might have seen a very attentive animal wearing a “service dog” vest or harness, sticking close to their owner and staying cool as a cucumber, even in the midst of a busy and noisy place. Their attitude makes it clear they are working and staying on task, which can be quite impressive to watch.


There are currently about 500,000 service dogs in the United States.1 And while that might seem like a lot, consider that the American Veterinary Medical Association reports there are well over 76 million dogs and 58 million cats kept as pets in U.S. homes.2

A great deal of time and attention goes into making sure a service animal can take care of a person when it matters most. It can take up to two years to train a service animal, and only about 30% of the animals who start training actually graduate from the program.3 No wonder these animals are so rare and valuable!

An elderly person might have a lifelong condition, such as blindness, that makes the use of a service dog a very good idea at any age. But others might have medical conditions that progress over time, leading to the need for more assistance as they get older. These seniors might find that a service dog can help them keep their balance, remember to take their medications, allow them to get out of the house without as much worry, fetch items, and even use medical alert technology to call for help if necessary.

Do you need a service animal? We’ll cover what they are, what they do, and how to get one.

What is a Service Animal?

Service animals are highly trained animals, dedicated to assist those with disabilities of some kind. The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes only dogs and miniature horses as service animals. However, other animals might be trained as service animals; they just won’t receive the rights and protections under the ADA. These might include cats, rabbits, and even potbellied pigs.

They can be trained to handle a wide variety of issues, including physical problems, sensory issues, psychiatric or intellectual difficulties, or developmental disabilities. They can be especially helpful for seniors who have chronic conditions or mobility issues that are getting worse over time.

What a service animal actually does depends upon the person and the specific help they need. Here are a few examples:

·        A service dog can be a guide for a person who is blind. The dog can help that person navigate the world outside the home, including crossing streets or taking the bus.

·        A service animal might alert its deaf or hard-of-hearing owner to the sound of a doorbell, fire alarm, or phone call.

·        A service animal might sense the subtle signs of an impending seizure for someone who has epilepsy or similar conditions. The animal guides their person to a safe place and helps support their body as they have the seizure. They can be trained to find help once the crisis is over.

·        An animal can be trained to sense when their owner is suffering from low blood sugar. This is especially helpful for those with diabetes who have hypoglycemia unawareness, a dangerous condition that doesn’t allow them to feel the signs of an impending blood sugar low. A service cat could be trained to alert their owner to the problem and lead them to juice or other sources of sugar to remedy the issue.

·        A service dog might perform very specific tasks, such as bringing their person certain medications or reaching out for help by pressing a panic button or other medical alert device they have been trained to use.

Service animals are highly trained and attuned to the needs of their specific person. In a sense, the service animal can be an extension of the person who needs the help. That’s why under the ADA, recognized service animals are allowed to accompany their owners to places where other animals aren’t allowed to go, such as grocery stores, restaurants, buses and other public transportation, airports and planes, and any other place where the general public is allowed to go. Service animals are well-trained to handle the disruptions and distractions that come from these places and keep their focus on their owner at all times.

Can Service Animals Help Seniors?

Those who have mobility issues, disabilities, or worsening medical conditions might benefit greatly from a service animal. Here are just a few of the ways seniors might be in good hands (or paws) when they choose a service dog, cat, or other animal.

·        More independence. It can be astounding what service animals can be taught to do. From opening doors to fetching medications to using medical alert systems, service animals can make life much easier for the elderly. Depending upon the size of the animal, they might even be able to bolster their person physically, providing them with strong support to help transfer them out of chairs or bed or similar tasks.

·        Better physical health. The presence of an animal can lower blood pressure and reduce stress; that might be even more likely with a service animal that is trained to help you. And just as a service animal cares for their person’s needs, they must have their needs met in return. That means exercise, such as getting outside to walk the dog.

·        Creating a routine. People who have dementia and Alzheimer’s might benefit greatly from a regular routine. And while having a pet can help with that, as they need to provide care on a regular basis, service animals can take that routine one step further by encouraging their person to do things in a certain order or at certain times.

·        The ability to call for help. One of the gifts of a service animal is that they are trained to communicate in a variety of ways. If their person is in trouble, the animal is trained to get help. Some service animals can be trained to actually use medical alarms and other life-saving devices to ensure their human is safe, no matter the situation.

·        Companionship. Many elderly adults suffer from loneliness and social isolation, which can lead to anxiety and depression. The presence of a service or support animal can alleviate some of those mental and emotional issues. Animals can also provide a strong sense of purpose and responsibility, and that can be very motivational for owners. 

·        Safety and security. A service animal can help support an elderly person as they walk by providing them with assistance in balancing. Miniature horses or large breeds of dogs are especially good at this. They can recognize when things aren’t quite right and encourage their person to call for help. And some service animals, especially dogs, can become quite protective – so if someone were to try to break into a home, for instance, the service animal might make the trespasser regret their choices! 

How to Obtain a Service Animal

Getting a service animal isn’t something that can be taken lightly. Not only are service animals scarce and in high demand, they are also quite expensive. Some non-profits might cover the cost of a service animal for those with disabilities, but that assistance is also scarce. No Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance plan will cover the cost of a service animal. So keep in mind that the cost of a service animal, which can run upwards of $30,000, might come out of your pocket.

If your doctor has decided that you need one, here’s how the process works:

·        Once a doctor has recommended a service animal, consider the type of animal you might need. A person with visual impairment might need a guide dog, but someone who needs a service animal at home – such as a deaf person who can’t hear the doorbell or phone – could do well with a cat as their service animal.

·        Find the right service animal organization. Some of them train animals for a very specific purpose, such as signaling when an epileptic seizure is about to happen or assisting a person in getting around the home safely.

·        Applying for the service animal might include a medical evaluation, assessments to determine your needs, and other eligibility requirements. Don’t be surprised if there is a long waiting list. Once you are approved for a service animal, you must then be matched with the right one.

·        It isn’t just the service animal who needs to be trained. You need training on how to handle the animal and what to expect from it. That training will be provided through the animal’s organization and might take place in a clinical setting or in your own home, depending upon the situation.

·        Once you have your service animal, you are responsible for its care, as well as getting certification and registration, if required in your area. In some cases, a service animal must be registered in order to be allowed on planes, in hospitals, or in certain other establishments.

Remember that service animals will need to be cared for just as any other pet, with appropriate food, water, medical care, and attention from the owner. Some registration and certification might require regular checkups and vaccinations. Some seniors might find it tough to afford these obligations, but there could be assistance through non-profit organizations to help pay for the costs of maintaining a healthy service animal. Talk to your veterinarian about the options.

What is an Emotional Support Animal?

These animals might also be highly trained to care for their owner, but they are not considered service animals. Service animals perform tasks for their person, while emotional support animals might simply serve as companions. But they still perform a vital service, as they provide the emotional support and comfort that can help a person handle anxiety and depression. Someone with PTSD might turn to an emotional support animal for comfort during flashbacks or other triggers of memories that could leave them unable to cope.

Just like service animals, an emotional support animal can go into places that pets are not normally allowed to go. But you can’t simply decide that you need comfort and choose to take your favorite pet with you; in order to be considered an emotional support animal, you will need an actual prescription for one. Here’s how it works:

·        Evaluation: A mental health professional must perform a thorough evaluation of an individual to determine if they qualify for an emotional support animal (ESA).

·        Proof: The professional will then provide a “letter of prescription.” This will include their contact information, a statement that says the person has an emotional or mental disability and that an emotional support animal is appropriate and warranted for their condition.

·        Choose: Any type of animal can be an ESA, though dogs and cats are the most common. The person must choose one animal to be their ESA.

·        Training: Though ESAs don’t need to be trained to perform specific tasks, some of them can be. What’s most important is that the animal is trained to be well-behaved and not disrupt others, especially in public situations.

The letter of prescription allows for reasonable accommodations for an ESA. Under the Fair Housing Act, those who require an ESA are allowed to have the animal living with them, even if the housing policy prohibits pets. And the Air Carrier Access Act allows those with an ESA to bring their animal on flights. Keep in mind that these accommodations will require the letter of prescription as proof of the need for an ESA.

However, emotional support animals are not service animals, and therefore aren’t protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. So though an ESA can be on a commercial flight or in housing even with a “no pet” policy, there is no guarantee of public access. So you might not be able to take an ESA into a restaurant with you, for example.

Service Animals for the Elderly

Speak to your doctor about the benefits of a service animal and how you might be able to obtain one. Keep in mind that you will need to work directly with the animal for training purposes, so if you have a chronic condition that is worsening, it’s better to get a service animal sooner rather than later. Waiting too long could make it more difficult to participate in the required training.

Service animals, while they are highly trained working creatures, can also be considered pets. They need the same attention, security, and love that any other pet might need. The best relationship between a senior and their service animal is one of give-and-take-- you take care of them and give them the best home possible, and they return the favor by taking care of you through your golden years. It’s a winning proposition all around.