The Role of Service Animals for Spinal Cord Injury Survivors

service animals and spinal cord injury survivors

If you're an animal lover who struggles to manage your daily tasks, a service animal might seem like a magnificent solution, all wrapped up in one cute package. But if you're not an animal lover, you might be on the fence.

Rest assured, service animals aren't just pets. They love you and care for you and provide you companionship, but they also work. And not only may they mean the difference between living independently and having to rely on others, but they can also be a big help to caregivers in helping a patient to feel supported through their recovery.

What Do Service Animals Do?

Finding the right service animal to partner with a spinal cord injury survivor really depends on the needs of the individual. Some common tasks of service animals include:

  • Alerting you to potential dangers.
  • Helping you navigate the world, particularly if you suffered sensory injuries—such as a loss of hearing or sight—alongside your spinal cord injury.
  • Helping you open and close doors, reach objects, and find lost items.
  • Serving as a source of comfort; it's common for people with spinal cord injuries to struggle with depression, anxiety, or panic attacks.
  • Helping you avoid medical catastrophes; some service animals can be trained to recognize the signs of seizures, panic attacks, or heart attacks, and to call for help before it's too late.
  • Helping you stand and support yourself.
  • Turning lights on and off.
  • Bringing you everyday items, such as drinks, medication, or food.

What Animals Can Be Service Animals?

In theory, any animal can be a service animal.  In the U.S., however, the official ADA designation of service animals is limited to dogs. There are more options of trainable, relationship-forming animals listed below, though these are more common in other countries throughout the world.

Dogs are also the most common choice because of their long history as human companions, their strong sense of loyalty, and their high potential for training. Most people opt for larger dogs, because larger dogs are often more manageable and trainable, and also offer a sense of security. Moreover, their larger size means they're better equipped to help you with physically challenging tasks.

Some additional choices include:

  • Cats, which boast more dexterity and longer lives, but are less trainable than dogs.
  • Birds, which are highly intelligent—maybe even more so than cats and dogs—and which can reach spots dogs and cats may not.
  • Monkeys. These highly intelligent animals are increasingly used as service animals, but because they are not domesticated and have psychological and intellectual needs similar to humans, they are often a poor choice—particularly if you cannot provide a stimulating environment.
  • Any other domesticated animal with the intelligence to help you and the ability to live in your home. Some people turn to farm animals though they are a less common and controversial choice.

What Are My Rights With My Service Animal?

The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination by public entities such as schools and courts, as well as private entities that offer public accommodations. This latter category includes virtually all businesses that serve the public, including restaurants, banks, and similar organizations. Because service animals are necessary for the completion of everyday tasks, prohibiting service animals is a form of disability discrimination.

Please note, however, that you can't just buy a pet and call the animal a service animal. State laws vary but generally your service animal must be used primarily to assist you. In many places, your animal may need to wear a vest or carry a license.

How Do I Get a Service Animal?

Dozens of organizations offer service animals. You won't have to train your own animal for support after a spinal cord injury; instead, the animal will live with a family or individual who trains them. Then you'll work with the animal, with the assistance of a trainer, to finalize the training.

Some organizations currently offering service animals include:

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