Fake Service Animals: The Lasting Effects of Furry Fraud

This post has been sitting in my editorial calendar for some time.  Fake service animals are creating a host of problems for people with genuine need. The topic of service dog fraud is a difficult one, fraught with strong emotions on all sides.  It’s time to clear the air in a constructive way.

Service, assistance, or emotional support.  What’s the difference?

There are some misconceptions out there about what makes an animal a service animal.  There are key differences between service animals and emotional support animals.

A service animal is a working animal that has been trained to perform specific tasks to help someone with a disability.  By law, service animals may enter public areas, including airplanes and other public transportation, with their handlers. Consequently, these animals must be well-trained, and cannot present a physical danger.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognizes only dogs and miniature horses as service animals.

An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that provides companionship and emotional support for those diagnosed with a psychological disorder.  These animals do not have to be trained for a specific task.  Airlines allow ESAs on airplanes under the Air Carrier’s Act.

Both service animals and emotional support animals fit under the umbrella of assistance animals.  However, emotional support animals do not have the same protection under the law as do service animals.

Service Animal Certification

Some organizations legitimately train and certify service animals.  However, the law does not require service animals to undergo certification.  Training programs for service animals are generally quite costly.  For instance, it takes about $50,000 to train a dog through Guiding Eyes for the Blind.  Such high costs may be a barrier for some people with disabilities. Although Guiding Eyes, like many non-profits, provides these dogs free of charge to people who need them, they can’t help everyone.  For this reason,those with disabilities may legally train their own animals.

It is against the law to require a handler of a service animal to present proof of disability.  In contrast, employees may ask the handlers of ESAs to present documentation from a health care provider.  By law, airlines may require this documentation before accommodating an emotional support animal.

Service animal fraud

Because  the law does not require handlers to provide documentation of disability, it is relatively easy to pass a dog off as a genuine service animal.  And there are organizations in the US that will provide documentation for an emotional support animal at low cost.  This documentation may not meet the requirements for legal documentation based on a medical diagnosis.  For these reasons, it is inexpensive and relatively simple to fraudulently claim that a pet is an assistance animal.

Why would pet parents want to commit assistance animal fraud?  Restrictions on pets and the costs of pet care are two drivers of the increase in fake assistance animals. And some people view this type of fraud as a harmless act.

Tight restrictions  on where pets may accompany their owners in the US are frustrating to many pet parents.  At a time when an owners view pets as members of the family, pet parents are pushing back against what they see as unnecessary restrictions on pets.  Claiming that a pet is an assistance animal is one way, perhaps the easiest way, to circumvent these restrictions.

Another reason people may fraudulently claim their pet as an assistance animal is to avoid some of the costs of pet care.  Under the Fair Housing Act, those with assistance animals do not pay additional pet rent or fees.  Just like service animals, emotional support animals do not incur airline fees.

Finally, people may view assistance animal fraud as a victimless act.  “Does it really hurt anyone for me to use existing laws to take my pet into this restaurant?  On this bus?” some may ask.  Well, the issue may be more complex than it seems at first glance.

What’s the problem with fake service animals?

The AVMA has released a position paper on Assistance Animal Fraud.  The paper outlines three main problems that assistance animal fraud may cause.  Service animal fraud makes it harder for those who need real assistance animals to consistently obtain reasonable accommodation.  Fraud also causes decreased goodwill for service animals and may lead to decreased access for those who need them. And finally, the large numbers of fake service animals make it harder for real service animals to do their job.

Decreased good will

How do fake service animals make it harder for real service animals?  One problem is that this fraud decreases goodwill for those who genuinely need assistance.  When poorly-trained fake assistance animals act out in a public space, the public becomes less tolerant and more suspicious of all service animals.  Recently, there have even been cases in which fraudulent assistance animals have become aggressive and injured people.

If people are suspicious of service animals, it is harder for those who need them to seamlessly use their animals in public.  The law does not require service animals to wear a vest or other identification. When the handler of a service animal has an obvious disability, such as blindness, it’s pretty easy to recognize that the service animal is genuine.  In these cases, the handler usually encounters no problem with getting reasonable accommodation.  But what happens when the handler has a less visible disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or epilepsy?

Service dogs may be trained to detect the onset of anxiety attacks or seizures.  They may learn special tasks to help those with anxiety disorders or PTSD.  These tasks may include placing their bodies between their handlers and others in a room, leaning on the handler during times of stress to provide physical comfort, or other subtle behaviors.  Because the handler may look and act “normal,” people may suspect that the service dog is unnecessary, and some may even accuse the handler of fraud.

Decreased access

The rise in assistance animal fraud has led state legislatures to comtemplate, and in some cases to pass, legislation that increases barriers to access for those who need an assistance animal.  Such bills may require training certification (this increases the costs to those with disabilities) or proof of disability.   Some handlers are concerned that states may refuse to acknowledge the need for service animals in cases of psychological disorders.

Decreased ability to do the job

The presence of poorly trained animals in public spaces sometimes makes it hard for service animals to do their job.  A service animal is trained to ignore distractions, including other animals.  But a reactive or even friendly animal may attempt to interact with the service animal.   A disruptive animal may force the handler to stop or to move around the other animal.  As a worst-case scenario, other animals may attack and injure the service animal.

What are potential solutions to the problem?

The AVMA lays out some potential solutions to help prevent assistance animal fraud.

    1. Make the laws and legal definitions for assistance animals more consistent from state to state.
      Consistent definitions will allow the public to distinguish real and fake assistance animals.  Consistent laws will help employees to know when they must make reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal, and when it is acceptable to limit access.  If any service animal is disruptive or dangerous, for example, an employee may ask the handler to leave or take the animal outside.
    2. Make it harder to obtain fraudulent materials and certifications for assistance animals.
    3. Make it easier for pets to accompany their owners in public spaces.
    4. Provide broader access for emotional support animals.

What can pet parents do about this problem?

Pet parents and the public can address this problem by increasing awareness, working to pass pet-friendly legislation, and ensuring that pets are well-trained.  Let people know that passing off a pet as an assistance animal is not only illegal, but it also creates real problems for the genuinely disabled.   Get involved at the local and state level. Rromote pet-friendly legislation that makes it easier for everyone to take their pet with them in public spaces.  Finally, make sure your pets are well-trained.  Increasing public access for pets requires that pets be well behaved.  Take a Canine Good Citizen certification course or basic obedience training for your pet.

Support organizations that provide service animals at low or no cost to those who need them.  Warrior’s Best Friend,  Battle Buddy Service DogsFreedom Service Dogs, Little Angels Service Dogs, KSDS Assistance DogsGuiding Eyes for the Blind, Canine Companions for Independence, and many others are working to ensure that service animals are there for the people in need.

And for those who use and will continue to use a fraudulent service animal, it is on you to ensure that the animal is as well trained as a real service animal.


Help or Hype? Does Your Dog Need Paw Balm?

Does your dog need paw balm?

I see a lot of people pushing paw balm (butter) in all seasons.  My own philosophy of dog skin care is that less is more.  That is, I need to know that a product is truly beneficial before I use it.  Does your dog need paw balm?  Does paw balm help or is it so much hype?

Paw protection in the winter

The most convincing use of paw balm is as a protectant for your dog’s paws in the winter during freezing weather.  In this case, using a wax of some type in the formulation truly seems to provide protection against paw cracking.  The wax also forms a barrier that minimizes contact with de-icers.  These salts can injure your dog’s paw pads.  Anecdotally, mushers and those with working dogs use paw protectants religiously during the winter.

Paw protection in the summer

There is little evidence that paw balm provides useful protection to your dog’s feet during hot summer months.  Keeping your dog off the concrete and asphalt during the hottest parts of the day is a much more effective way to prevent pad burns.  And for those time when you simply must get out during very hot weather, boots may be a better option.

Function over form

Using paw butter to soften your dog’s paw pads may be counterproductive, winter or summer.  Your dog’s pads need to be tough enough to withstand normal wear and tear. That means walking on gravel and occasional sharp objects, as well as hot and cold surfaces.  And to stand up to all that, your dog’s pads need to be tougher than the bottoms of your own feet. It is natural for your dog’s paw pads to feel a little rough.

Think about the last time you went swimming and had to walk across gravel.  Unless you go barefoot frequently, it probably felt excruciating.  People generally work hard to keep the protective callouses off the bottom of their feet.  We get away with this because we wear shoes that protect our feet.  Dogs do not wear shoes consistently (and they shouldn’t except when weather conditions are extreme).

If your dog develops deeper cracks, it may be appropriate to use a healing lotion and a protectant to prevent further damage.  If your dog develops cracked pads, you should also consider making a visit to your veterinarian.  Changes in your dog’s skin may indicate underlying health problems.  Unless your dog has unhealthy cracking in the pads, do not apply moisturizing lotions.  Avoid any lotion that leads to skin softening.  It is a mistake to apply human cosmetic standards to dogs.

A word about safety

Did you know that pet cosmetic products are not regulated by the FDA?  These types of products are considered to be grooming aids.  As such, unless they claim to treat a disease or condition, they are not subject to rigorous testing for either efficacy or safety.  Most companies that make and sell these products are ethical and believe in their products.  But belief is not evidence.  Until a controlled study is published demonstrating that routine use of paw moisturizers leads to better paw health, I will remain skeptical about the hype.


Your Cat Keeps Secrets: Subtle Signs of Illness in Cats

Cats are notoriously enigmatic creatures.  Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland , your cat keeps secrets.  She may not show pain or other signs that she is sick. That’s why subtle signs of illness in cats require prompt veterinary attention.

Your cat keeps secrets

Cats retain many of their species’ undomesticated behavioral characteristics.  In the wild, all but the largest cats are both predator and prey.   It’s important for animals that are being hunted as prey to hide their weaknesses.  Consequently, cats have become masters of misdirection.

Veterinary professionals struggle to define the signs of pain in cats consistenly.  A validated method to score pain, for instance, is useful in assessing recovery from painful procedures or illness.  Cats’ tendency to mask their pain and demonstrate only very subtle behavioral changes makes reliable detection and grading of pain difficult at best.

A large survey of feline medical specialists evaluated 91 signs of pain.  Participants answered questions about the reliability of these indicators of pain to accurately detect real pain in cats.  The participants narrowed these signs down to only 22.  You can find the full list in the article, which is available as a free full text in PubMed. 1

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Signs of illness in cats require prompt attention

Because cats hide pain and other evidence of ill health, any unusual signs you observe are probably just the tip of the iceberg.  As a cat owner, you should take any and all behavioral changes in your cat seriously.  Here are some easily overlooked clinical signs along with their potential significance.  This is not meant to be an inclusive list, so be sure to ask your veterinarian about any unusual signs in your cat.

  1. Eating less/not eating:  Cats need to eat regular meals.  Cats that stop eating, especially if they’re fat, can develop liver disease.  If you haven’t been able to get your cat to eat for 24 hours, talk to your veterinarian.  Decreased appetite in cats may be a sign of gastrointestinal disease, but may also be a sign of generalized disease and poor health.
  2. Eating more: If your cat suddenly develops a voracious appetite, he may have an endocrine disease such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism.  You should be especially concerned if your cat eats more but does not gain, or even loses, weight.
  3. Increased urination:  Although you might not directly observe your cat using the litterbox more frequently, chances are you will notice increased litter clumping or odor in the box.  You may find yourself changing the litter more frequently.  This can be a sign of diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, or other problem.
  4. Decreased urination: Especially with a male cat, decreased urination could be a sign of developing urinary blockage.  If your cat stops urinating, this is a medical emergency.  Your cat may exhibit signs of pain or distress when attempting to urinate.
  5. Urination outside the litter box:  Urinary pain may cause your cat to avoid the litterbox.  The joint pain of arthritis may also be associated with inappropriate urination outside the box.  If it’s painful to enter the box, your cat will be reluctant to use it.  If your cat has consistently used the litter box but begins to have accidents in the house, consult your veterinarian.
  6. Increased activity level:  If your laid-back and lazy cat turns into a dynamo in constant motion, you should be suspicious of an underlying problem.  Hyperthyroidism is common in cats and can cause increased activity.
  7. Decreased activity level:  A noticeable decrease in your cat’s activity may also be a sign that your cat needs a check-up.  Arthritis can lead to decreased activity as can systemic disease.
  8. Change in vocalization:  If you notice that your cat is calling out more, or less, or has a change in her voice, it’s time for a check-up.  Changes in the frequency and intensity of vocalization may be a sign of pain or underlying disease.  Changes in tone can be due to respiratory problems, polyps, hyperthryoidism, or other illness.
  9. Ear scratching or head shaking may be a sign of infection or ear mites.
  10. Changes in coat quality: If your cat is not grooming herself, it may be because of pain or illness.  Arthritis may make grooming more difficult for cats.  Disease can sap energy and lead to decreased grooming.  Any time you notice a change in your cat’s coat, you should suspect a problem.
  11. Weight loss or loss of muscle:  If you cat is getting thinner or if you notice that the muscles feel smaller, this may be a sign of a number of systemic diseases including diabetes, hyperthyroidism, renal disease, gastrointestinal disease, and others.  These signs may develop so gradually that you may not notice the change over time.

A case study

My favorite cat, Boogey, was not doing well.  His parents hadn’t noticed anything specific, but he wasn’t as energetic as usual and just looked a little scruffy to them. He was free fed, but his owners didn’t note an increase or decrease in the amount he was eating.  He may or may not have been using his litterbox more.

Although his signs were mild and non-specific, his parents decided to have him checked out.  Sure enough, bloodwork showed that he had developed diabetes.  Once he was treated with insulin, his parents observed marked improvement in his coat condition, but also in his body condition.  They hadn’t noticed that he was gradually losing muscle tone.  Even though his diet was restricted, he was able to put on weight once his disease was treated.

Boogey’s story demonstrates that a cat can be seriously ill but show only mild signs.  He had a good outcome, but if his parents hadn’t taken him in to see the veterinarian, the story might have ended in tragedy.  Subtle signs of illness in cats require prompt medical attention.

1 Merola, I. and Mills, D., Behavioural Signs of Pain in Cats, an Expert Consensus, PLoS One, 2016, 11(2).

Photo credit: Unsplash

Four Rules to Help You Understand Pet Food

Four Pet Food Rules

Have you ever wondered whether a food labeled “tuna dinner” is better for your cat than a food labeled “with tuna?”  Pet food companies like to find creative and appealing names for their products, but these names may be confusing.  Four easy to understand rules about how pet foods are named can help you to understand what’s really in a product.

Four Rules number 1: The 95% rule

This rule applies to pet foods with a limited number of ingredients.  At least 95% of the product must be the named ingredient.  For example, a dog food may be named Chicken for Dogs.  If there are two named ingredients, then they must total 95% of the product.  The ingredient that makes up the larger percentage must be named first.  A company can’t market a product as lamb and rice, for instance, if rice is actually the main ingredient.

Four Rules Number 2: The Dinner Rule

Some foods, especially cat foods, are labeled as a “dinner.” If the named ingredient makes up at least 25% of the product, but less than 95%, then the company has to give it a name like “dinner,” “platter,” or “entree.”  There are many different types of names that may be used.  For these products, the named ingredient has to make up only 25% of the product, and it is likely not the main ingredient.  As an example, a “chicken formula” could also contain fish, and could contain more fish than chicken.  It’s important to check the label on this type of food, especially if your pet has a food allergy. Remember, the ingredients are required to be listed in descending order of predominance by weight.   If there are two named ingredients, then they must make up 25% of the product together.

Four Rules Number 3: The 3% Rule

Sometimes a pet food manufacturer may want to point out a special ingredient on the label, although it only makes a small percent of the food.  In this case, the name might be “Chicken Dinner with Cheese.”  The special ingredient only has to make up 3% of the food.  So don’t be confused.  Dog Food with Beef is not the same as “Beef Dinner for Dogs.”

Four Rules Number 4: The Flavor Rule

The last rule may be the trickiest.  There aren’t any rules for the amount of flavor that must be included.  The flavor simply has to be detectable, generally by animals trained to detect the flavor.  And, the flavor may contain the named ingredient, or it may not.  “Liver Flavor” could contain liver, or it could contain a mixture of other ingredients that taste like liver.

As the four rules demonstrate, pet owners should always read pet food labels carefully.  This is the first in a series of articles about pet food labeling and ingredients.  Next up:  The Truth about Byproducts.  You may also learn more about labels here. 


Confused About Dog Genetic Tests? This Database Can Help

A host of companies promote dog genetic tests to pet parents, breeders, and veterinary healthcare providers.  The number of choices can be overwhelming.  A new database will make the choice easier.

The problem

The recent proliferation of laboratory tests analyzing canine DNA has opened up a world of new information for researchers, breeders, veterinarians, and pet parents.  But there are no harmonized, mandatory standards for the diagnostic laboratories running veterinary tests.  Accreditation via different agencies is voluntary.  Without harmonized quality standards, the performance of tests from different labs may be very different, and some tests may not be reliable.

The invention of testing methods has also outpaced the availability of the underlying research to the general public.  As a result, pet parents, breeders, and veterinarians may not have all the information they need to make a decision about which tests to use and how to interpret the results.

The solution

In order to help the animal health community make informed decisions about genetic testing, the International Partnership for Dogs (IPFD) has created a database of 18 genetic testing providers (GTP) and 300 specific genetic tests.  The database provides information about the quality standards, accreditation, and expertise of providers.  Users of the database will also find detailed information about the clinical use and background for each specific genetic test.  The database will help the user to understand the science that supports the genetic tests.

How it works

Users of the database may search by breed, by specific test, or by laboratory provider. The IPFD recommends that you get familiar with the site before running your first search.  On the left of the home screen (circled in the screenshot below) you will find links to information about how to use the database, types of accreditation, breed-specific health recommendations, and basics of genetic testing.

genetic testing for dogs, IPFD, database,dog genetic tests

Dog genetic tests have great potential to improve the health and well-being of dogs.  Knowledge about genetic mutations in individual dogs can lead to better preventive medicine, more effective treatments, and responsible breeding practices.  The IPFD is working to harmonize quality standards to make the promise of genetic testing for dogs a reality.

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