Service monkeys and horses...where do we stop

I was at the annual conference of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America on the weekend. This is a hospital infection control organization, and one of the talks I gave was about animals in healthcare facilities. One question that came up was about unusual service animal species like monkeys. Service animals are specially trained animals that help disabled individuals with specific tasks. The most common examples are seeing-eye dogs. In the US, the American Disabilities Act protects service animals and dictates that they must be allowed to go wherever the person goes. I don't think people have a problem with that in general. However, there are concerns with respect to non-traditional species being used in these roles, and the question at the meeting was about service monkeys. Monkeys can be incredibly strong physically, and they can carry some important infectious zoonotic diseases, so there are concerns about them being allowed in hospitals. Part of the issue is what really makes an animal a service animal.  Should all animals that help someone out (in any capacity) be considered service animals?

That same topic came up in a recent ABC News article that described a seeing-eye horse in Texas, including a video of the owner riding the horse while grocery shopping. 

I have no doubt that this horse helps out its owner and provides great joy, if not increased freedom. However, I'm not convinced that a horse is necessary to fulfill this person's need for a service animal. Why use a horse when a dog could do as good (or a better) job? How was the horse trained? Was it trained under a formal program so that it is truly helpful? What types of health and behaviour screening have been used? What are the additional risks associated with using such a large farm-animal species?

Horses, even based solely on their size, can easily cause injury to members of the public without meaning to, simply by stepping on a person's foot or bumping into them, for example.  Some people might be scared of horses, especially indoors. Horses aren't litter trained, and horse manure can carry potentially infectious agents. I have a big problem with the video of this horse in a grocery store.  At end of the day, is a horse really necessary for what this person needs, and has the horse been adequately evaluated to ensure that it is low risk to the public? I don't think the answer is yes to either question, let alone both.

We certainly must do all that we can to allow full access of appropriate service animals, but we also need ensure that novelty "service" animals don't cloud the picture and potentially have a negative impact on true service animals.  The article states "...the government has begun rethinking whether the regulations should be changed to exclude some animals." That sounds like a great idea to me. Careful review of this issue, including the benefits to people, risks to the public and the need for new species over traditional options all need to be considered. 

Image: captured from video at http://www.abcnews.go.com/GMA/story?id=7157206

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Marilyn - March 25, 2009 11:04 AM

I saw this on the news the other day and my immediate thought was much the same - although a full-size service horse sounds like a wonderful idea for transportation in a rural or semi-rural community, in most cases that service would need to end at the front door.

There's actually a very interesting and detailed look at the whole question of defining service animals by Rebecca Skloot for the New York Times posted online, "Creature Comforts - Assistance Animals Now Come in all Shapes and Sizes". It's a good read, for anyone who's interested in the topic.

JS - June 5, 2009 4:24 PM

I use a service dog for mobility and seizure alert. I take Amtrak quite a bit and on one of the trips I thought I was traveling with the circus. In my lower level seating area there was a monkey, used by a young woman who was quadraplegic, a miniature horse, used by guite a large man who suffered with Parkinson's Disease, and then there was me with the dog. We all had quite a laugh, and we each thanked GOD for our precious helpers. Sometimes you need to walk in our shoes. JS

Scott Weese - June 8, 2009 8:35 PM

I am a strong supporter of service animals and the need to facilitate people that have these animals. However, I have yet to be convinced that a service horse provides any benefit over a dog (actually, I have yet to be convinced that a horse can do anything close to what a service dog can do). People certainly might enjoy having a horse with them, but service animals are there to help people with their daily activities. The novelty factor shouldn't be part of it. People can have both service animals and pets, and the service animals need to be properly scrutinized and trained.

Sheila - November 3, 2011 9:56 AM

I realize how long ago this post was made, but I feel I should address one sentence that really jumps out at me. In the fourth paragraph, you say:

"Some people might be scared of horses, especially indoors."

I won't debate that; a full-sized horse walking through your neighborhood WalMart could be scary to some.

However, plenty of people are afraid of dogs. Dogs are predatory animals who, without proper training, can be aggressive. A person who has had a bad experience with an aggressive dog may be generally wary of all dogs, or may have a diagnosable phobia. Some people will be scared when trapped in the narrow aisle of a store with a dog, orange service vest or not.

To say that horses should be ruled out for use as service animals on the grounds that "some people might be afraid" can be used to exclude any type of animal for such use, including the prototypical service dog.

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