By Rebecca Stout
New federal guidelines from the U. S. Department of Justice (DOJ) went into effect on March 15th of this year regarding service animals. These state that the definition of a service animal is now restricted to only dogs and miniature horses that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Any animals (even dogs and miniature horses) that provide people with emotional support and comfort or aid in therapy are not considered service animals.
These guidelines are suggestions for states to use when creating laws, they are not laws themselves. Some states, however, automatically follow guidelines set by federal agencies. The new guidelines have already inspired some places in the United States to change policies concerning support animals of all species except dogs and miniature horses, and have recently used them to approve laws seriously limiting people’s access to emotional support animals, therapy assistance animals, activity assistance animals, visitation animals (or social/therapy animals) and service animals (excluding dogs and miniature horses).
Before March 15, 2011, the service animal provisions in effect since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) became law required that public establishments allow service animals of all types to accompany people with disabilities. A service animal used to be defined by the DOJ as any animal “individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability.” As long as an animal met this definition, it was considered a service animal even if it wasn’t licensed or certified by a local or state government. The past definitions and terminology regarding therapy and service animals were never standardized, sometimes causing confusion over the years. In addition, the DOJ reports recent complaints of abuses.
Some people don’t believe that the new guidelines will result in blissful clarity. Jan Schmidt is the president of Paws for Friendship Inc., which is an animal-assisted therapy organization that has national and international chapters. In addition to dogs and cats, the organization certifies alternative service animals such as ferrets. Schmidt fears there is potential for mass confusion between the new guidelines and what the laws actually are. She also fears how they would be enforced.
“Most states have poorly run divisions that ‘regulate’ each individual case,” Schmidt said. “We’ve all seen it with child care and elderly care, this would be no exception. This would escalate much worse I’m afraid.” In addition, she believes the changes do a disservice to people who have conditions that need services that dogs and miniature horses just cannot provide.
The Ferret Factor
Many ferrets have traits that make them effective for animal-assisted therapy. To state a few, ferrets are small, easygoing, quiet, litter-trained, social and attentive. Ferrets transport easily, do not stress easily from travel, do not trigger allergies as much as other common furry pets and do well with limited outdoor access.
Jessica O’Neill of Ontario, Canada, is a companion animal behavior consultant at Forever Friends Dog Training Center. She has assessed and approved of ferrets as therapy animals and as psychiatric service animals.
“There are many service-related tasks that can be taught, along with many natural characteristics and behavior tendencies of the species itself which have a therapeutic effect,” O’Neill said. “Sleep or quiet behavior can easily be triggered by placing the animal in a safe, enclosed place. This means that the animal not only tolerates, but actually enjoys being closely burrowed against the handler’s body. This can act as a calming mechanism for individuals suffering from anxiety and stress-related disabilities. Ferrets can be trained to alert handlers to take medication, to wake up if asleep and to the onset of seizures or panic attacks. These are just a few examples.”
Ferrets can also be wonderful at preventing or interrupting behaviors that can be harmful to patients and others around them.
How Ferrets Help
Frances Woodard of Ontario, Canada, knows all too well how devastating it would be to people who rely on service ferrets if these animals could no longer accompany them in public. She was able to train her ferrets, Gyno and Emily, to alert her to oncoming panic attacks she suffers due to agoraphobia. The ferrets also comforted her after an attack. Ferrets are perfect for her because she is confined to a wheelchair and lives in a small place. In addition, she has the need to be as inconspicuous as possible in public because of her disability.
In 2008, the public bus service Woodard used revoked the access card that allowed Gyno on the bus as a service animal. Woodward recalls the devastating effect to her. “When you are given a taste of freedom, and when that freedom gets taken away, it somehow becomes an emptiness inside. I was given that freedom, and slowly I learned to go out on my own. You have no idea how proud I was of myself the first time I went to a mall alone. The fact that I could make a choice of where I could do my grocery shopping — something most take for granted — was huge for me. I no longer had to use the most expensive store in the area because it was the only one I could get to with my wheelchair alone.” Woodard filed a complaint with the transportation agency and even visited city hall. Her pass was reissued.
Ferrets are suited for animal-assisted therapy (AAT), which involves professionals such as physical, occupational and speech therapists or staff in residential care facilities utilizing animals in goal-directed work with patients. They are also suited for animal-assisted activities (AAA), which involves using animals to aid recreational therapists and trained volunteers to motivate clients and promote socialization. Visitation animals are brought to homebound patients and establishments like hospitals and nursing homes to aid patients in socialization and psychologically comforting them. In this category, ferrets are top-notch.
Susie Riddle is the director of the Weezle Wings Ferret Sanctuary in Texas. She owns five visitation ferrets. Riddle is in the unique position of enjoying one of them as an emotional support animal for her panic and anxiety disorder and mild agoraphobia. Ferr’ouquea Clarice gives her the psychological comfort and the confidence to live a more normal life. The ferret also helps Riddle be able to do the visitations that help so many people. “It’s a giant circle,” Riddle said. “Ferr helping me to get out, the therapy ferrets helping others by Ferr helping me get them to the resident, homebound people, agoraphobics and social/pet events where they are featured guests, etc. My precious fursnakes help all of those who need love and also those who were tragically separated from their pets when they entered the nursing homes.”
Ferrets make ideal emotional support animals (ESA). They are very social, attentive and bond closely with their owners. Lori Richardson has been disabled by several afflictions including neuropathy and fibromyalgia. Her ferrets help to alleviate depression and anxiety that people often suffer due to chronic health issues. They give her purpose and motivation. Richardson is the director of the ferret rescue Ferrets at Heart in Ohio, and she describes what she considers their most valuable trait, “Ferrets are always happy. They are always interested in what is going on with their human. They need us. What other pet can you put the label of ‘always’ on?”
Scott Myles of North Carolina said that energetic ferrets boost morale and bring laughter to people in need. His wife suffered a stroke resulting in a poor prognosis many years ago. She was unresponsive to therapy dogs, but one day she reacted positively toward a little ferret that was brought in to her. He played a key role in her recovery. Myles said this specific ferret stayed by his wife’s side and was adamant about making her pet him by nipping at her fingers. This motivated her to use her hand and arm again. Later, when she was recovering, the ferret followed her behind her walker; whenever she stopped, he stopped as well. After waiting a bit, if she didn’t move, he nipped at her heel to motivate her to walk again. “She also became more responsive, and we used him for therapy every day until she was released.”
Concern For The Ferrets
Ferrets in general do have some limitations. They have short life spans of 5 to 8 years. And kits (1 year old and younger) make poor candidates for working animals, because they are often too hyper, playful, and unfocused. A ferret enters its senior years at age 5 and becomes limited in what it can do. Other concerns are that ferrets have short attention spans, are highly susceptible to heat (85 degrees Fahrenheit and greater is a danger to ferrets), are difficult to capture if unleashed, potty frequently, and often develop health issues (such as adrenal disease and insulinoma).
Ailigh Vanderbush of Indiana specializes in animal behavior and training and has 10 years of experience with ferrets. She cautioned that animal service is, indeed, work. “A lot is expected of them, and the animal doesn’t usually get much from it,” Vanderbush said. “Also, there is not too much time to be a ‘normal’ ferret.” She added that no national or federal organization certifies ferrets, and there is no ferret equivalent of the therapy dog exam.
Nancy Sevier takes her certified therapy ferrets to visit residents of local nursing, and she believes the ferrets enjoy the visits as much as the people.
Can a ferret benefit from its “work”? Proponents say yes. Nancy Sevier is a volunteer that frequents her local nursing home in Louisiana with her certified therapy ferrets. She is the state coordinator for PAWS, and there is no doubt in her mind that her ferrets thrive on the stimulating outings and lavish attention they get during their visits. She has especially seen a very positive effect with one of her ferrets that was hideously abused in the past. “Toast loves doing this and has helped others at this facility come out of their ‘shell,’” Sevier said. “”He has been through so much, being set on fire, you wouldn’t think he would be open to people, but it helps him. too! He gets the love from people to see that not all people are mean like the men that set him on fire.”
For now, your rights to bring a service ferret into public areas are still intact in most of the country. However, given the fact that the issued guidelines may cause confusion, it’s best to be prepared. Kris Church, a co-director of the Richmond Ferret Rescue League, vet tech and behaviorist, offers valuable advice, “Check out your state regulations regarding service animals, get some sort of documentation for the animal — i.e. badge with animals picture, name, address, handler info and what service they provide — and have info for yourself — handicap sticker, license or doctor’s request — and contact information to the ADA and Department of Justice.”
The loss of ferrets as service animals would be devastating so be vigilant in watching your states laws regarding service animals. You might even want to think about petitioning the DOJ to allow ferrets as service animals.
Rebecca Stout resides in rural Tennessee with her husband, two sons and beloved pets. Ferrets have been in her heart and life for 35 years. She also enjoys writing, photography, animals and being a strong advocate for her autistic son. Visit her website.