Woman with guide horse

W hile it may seem like many are against the use of service and support animals due to frequent abuse of their titles, legitimate cases are protected by the ADA and Air Carrier Access Act. It is also important to remember that service and support animals are indeed working animals – those vests may be adorable, but what they represent is no joke.

The Ins and Outs of Alternative Service Animals


"Working Dog, Do Not Pet": something many of us have read at least once, embroidered onto the vest worn by an obedient (and oftentimes, adorable) service dog. However, how many of us can say they've encountered "Do Not Touch, Service Animal On Duty" emblazoned across the vest of a... mini horse?

Within the last decade, mini horses have steadily grown in popularity as an alternative service animal option for the blind community. In 1999, the Guide Horse Foundation was created to train and supply mini horses as service animals. At first glance, the appeal of a guide horse, as opposed to a traditional guide dog, may not be explicitly clear. However, according to the Guide Horse Foundation, there are many advantages to a guide horse. Mini horses have a lifespan of more than 30 years, which is significantly longer than that of a dog, and therefore makes guide horses a more long-term, cost-effective option.

Additionally, a longer lifespan means the potential for a deeper relationship between guide horse and handler. Mini horses also tend to be more mild-mannered than dogs, have exceptional memory and eyesight, and are reportedly very clean and can be housebroken.1 Of course, owning a guide horse is very different from owning a guide dog – mini horses consume a specialized diet of hay and oats, require a large outdoor space, and need to relieve themselves more often than dogs.

Other than practicalities, people may choose a guide horse for many reasons, including simple personal preference, a dog allergy, or even religion. In 2010, Today told the story of Mona Ramouni, a young blind woman from Michigan who could not own a guide dog.2 Mona came from a devout Muslim household that did not allow the keeping of dogs in the house. Therefore, a guide horse was the best option for Mona. Mini-horses are highly intelligent and make exceptional service animals, a concept that many do not realize until seeing them in action, working with their handlers.

There are many accounts of the use of alternative service animals. In 2008, the New York Times told the story of Jim Eggers and his "assistance parrot," Sadie.3 Jim has bipolar disorder with frequent psychotic tendencies including homicidal feelings. He describes living with this condition "like when the Incredible Hulk changes from man to monster." However, he notes that Sadie quells his outbursts and allows him to function in society. Jim recalls that before he adopted Sadie, he would frequently talk out loud to calm himself down, though it rarely worked, and he often landed in court for his outbursts. After adopting Sadie, she began mimicking his words in these situations – "calm down, Jim, it's okay, Jim" – and according to Jim, Sadie's calming words worked better than his own. Since having Sadie, Jim has not had a single public episode, and credits her with "keeping [him] from snapping." Sadie is also trained to alert Jim to knocks on the door, fire alarms, etc., as Jim's antipsychotic medications often leave him in a "mental fog."3 Despite a parrot being a seemingly unusual choice, Jim and Sadie's relationship truly works.

Though there is evidence to show the benefit of incorporating trained animal into the lives of those with health needs, in recent years there has been growing unrest and resentment toward the world of service animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, otherwise known as the ADA, initially defined "service animal" as "[any animal] individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability...are considered service animals."4 With such a broad definition, many people started to abuse the rule by falsely claiming their dogs, cats, snakes, birds, etc. as "service animals" or "emotional support animals" and unlawfully bringing them into public establishments. In some cases, this resulted in injury to other people and even to actual service animals, and also frequently posed a health risk in restaurants.

Of course, not all of these cases involved "fraud" service animals – there are many alternative service animals out there (like the cases of Mona or Jim and Sadie) that shock people and sometimes make them uncomfortable. For example, parrots and snakes are often used as "psychiatric support animals," and capuchin monkeys are frequently trained to help quadra- or paraplegics perform a variety of day-to-day tasks.3

Due to this controversy of fraudulent service animals, the ADA's definition of service animals was revised to only include dogs and expressly forbade other species of animals "whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained."⁵ However, because of the growth in popularity and proven success of guide horses, a clause was added to the ADA to recognize guide horses as an exception and granted them the same "rights" as guide dogs, with a few additional regulations regarding mini horse's size and whether or not it is housebroken.5

But what about the more "exotic" service animals? While these "alternative" service animals are incredibly helpful for those that have them, since the ADA does not recognize or approve them, they are not allowed in public places like restaurants or grocery stores with their handlers like guide dogs or horses. Due to this, those who suffer from psychiatric disorders or paralysis who could benefit from an alternative service animals help must find other solutions. This means that now, Sadie may not be allowed in public settings with Jim, which could possibly endanger himself and others, as well as put a limit on what he can do and where he can go on his own.

Additionally, the ADA does not recognize "Service and support animals are major monetary and emotional investments, and their quality of life is just as important as a person's treatment." emotional or psychiatric support animals in its definition of "service animal." This means that, although support animals may be a medically prescribed part of a treatment plan for mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or loneliness, they are not protected by the ADA and businesses can deny them and their handlers entry.⁵

Despite this, the Air Carrier Access Act issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation in May 2018 ensures that travel with most emotional and psychiatric support animals is just as accessible as travel with ADA-protected service animals. The act states Department Transpor ta t i on] considers a service animal to be any animal that is individually trained to assist a person with a disability, or an animal that is necessary for the emotional wellbeing of a passenger." The act does further state that airlines have the right to refuse any support animals they suspect to be illegitimate. Therefore, proof of the animal's status as an emotional or psychiatric aid is necessary to ensure no problems arise during travel, though that proof can sometimes be as simple as a doctor's note.6

So, why does this matter to you as a parent? If your child lives with a special healthcare need and could benefit from the assistance of a service or support animal, you may want to consider alternative options. For children with dog allergies, a guide horse may make a great service animal, should your home and lifestyle fit a mini horse's needs. If your child could benefit from the introduction of an emotional or psychiatric support animal, a reptile or bird may also be a great option to avoid allergies, or if your home lacks the necessary space or amenities to care for a larger animal like a dog. Though the former two are not perhaps the easiest pets to care for or travel with, their presence may greatly improve your child's well-being.

As cute and sensational as a mini-horse may be, service and support animals are major monetary and emotional investments, and their quality of life is just as important as a person's treatment. It's wise to only consider purchasing an alternative service or support animal if your lifestyle and living situation are suited to caring for them. If you wish to pursue the idea of a service or support animal, alternative or not, speak to your health professional team and/or an advocacy organization that supports those with your child's condition for information on the considerations and process of acquiring a service or support animal.

While it may seem like many are against "the [of the use of service and support animals due to frequent abuse of their titles, legitimate cases are protected by the ADA and Air Carrier Access Act. It is also important to remember that service and support animals are indeed working animals – those vests may be adorable, but what they represent is no joke. "Man's best friend" may come in many forms, and it is important to find the best service or support animal option for your family. Whether they bark, neigh, or chirp, introducing a service or support animal into your or your child's life could dramatically change it for the better.•

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anne Abraham is a senior from James Madison University pursuing a B.S. in Biotechnology. She is currently an intern at Genetic Alliance in Washington, D.C. and provides support to the Genes in Life and Disease Infosearch teams. Her professional and academic interests include bioethics, science policy, epigenetics, and genetic editing. She hopes to pursue a career in one of these fields following graduation in the D.C./Northern Virginia area.