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The Importance Of Ferrets As Therapy Animals

Why are ferrets good therapy animals and what do the new Department of Justice guidelines on service animals mean for people who have therapy ferrets?

By Rebecca Stout
Posted: May 1, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

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Frances Woodard with her ferret Gyno
© Courtesy Frances Woodard
Frances Woodard's ferret Gyno helped alert her and overcome panic attacks, which allowed her to leave her home more often.

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.

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Reader Comments
How does one train their ferrets to warn of panic attacks or seizures? I am interested in getting mine trained
Ryan, Richmond, VA
Posted: 1/13/2015 1:56:26 PM
I'm a disabled veteran from the Marine corps and my ferret Sarge is amazing he knows when I'm stressed out and he alleviates that feeling of anxiety from me. I also have Aspergers and it really helps with my anxiety in crowds
Angelo, Beech grove, IN
Posted: 6/10/2014 1:28:38 PM
I use my ferret "weasel" as a service animal. She chose me. I went to look at ferrets and there were many, she kept climbing into the hood of my sweatshirt and nestling in regardless of how many times I took her out. It was as if she knew that I needed her there. I have stage 4 hodgkins lymphoma and a lot of spinal pain. The heat from her body and weight reduce my pain dramatically. She is now trained to ride ( harnessed and on a lead ) in the hoods of my shirts, jackets, sweatshirts. She provides constant relief unlike a heating pad she does not cool off, unlike pain pills she does not have negative side effects. I am on daily injections, it wasn't long after we got her that she got into a drawer where they were kept and began literally bringing me a shot every morning. We rewarded this and she is now able to retrieve a shot from a set location and bring it to me. I feel its awful that she cannot be "officially" deemed a service animal. She clearly is doing a job when she is in my hood. She will only signal to get down when in need of a bathroom break,or when I choose to take her out. I believe weasel to even have alerted me to a newly formed mass of lymphoma in my chest a few months back. She began at night laying dead center in my chest, she would sniff me, and lick my skin in one specific spot until she finally fell asleep, a month later a PET scan revealed a new mass medial stinal, right where she was focused on. Most stores locally know my condition as I have been in the local paper The Suffolk Times, on the local news NEWS12 and on their website, and written about in The North Fork Patch. They do not question her ability to assist me, and welcome her in as if she was a true service animal. She has never causes a disturbance, she is so diligent to the task of staying in the hood that most people don't even notice she is there at all. I would only like her to be "official" and recognized for performing the task she clearly does so well.
Elizabeth, cutchogue, NY
Posted: 6/9/2013 2:06:52 PM
i've met this lady when she shopped at my store. i own ferrets myself and made sure she was looked after properly and saw to it her little critter was able to shop her. and yes they do have a calming effect. going through a bad spell myself and i don't know what i'd do without them. any friction to this is merely ignorance on the part of the public. all anyone has to do is ask.
adam, ottawa, ON
Posted: 9/19/2011 9:12:32 AM
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