by Lorie Lewis Ham
I think we’ve all heard of service and therapy dogs, but I doubt many people realize that there are also service and therapy rats helping humans live better lives.
Mental Health Counselor Intern Jennifer Harris is involved in training and using therapy rats. She always wanted to do Animal Assisted Therapy because animals don’t judge and love unconditionally. Jennifer intended to train a dog, but didn’t have the time to care for a puppy and put it through the necessary training. “So I needed to find an animal that was smart, trainable, and able to display empathy and regard for people, thus the rat was a perfect choice.”
Though she hasn’t heard of any other mental health practitioners working with therapy rats, Jennifer hopes that changes. “I have read some good things about people bringing rats around to kids with disabilities and how it helps their conditions to improve.”
Dani Moore is an adult with disabilities that has had service rats for several years. Due to spinal nerve injuries she does not have the normal sensation to alert her to spasms in her neck and shoulders before they become too severe and difficult to manage, so her rats do that for her while sitting on her shoulder. “They will feel the spasms when they are just barely starting and will alert me by licking me on the side of my neck or the side of my face,” said Dani. At first she does some stretches and if they don’t work the rat continues to alert her so she knows it’s time to take meds before the spasms get out of hand. The reason this is so very important is she also suffers from severe osteoporosis of the spine. “If I let the spasms get too bad, they can actually fracture my vertebra!”
Before she got her first rat, Dani couldn’t go out and enjoy life doing the things most of us take for granted such as going to the mall or Disneyland. “I could only go to one store, then straight home, because I never knew when the spasms would hit and if they hit bad, I can’t drive! Once they were established, they were almost impossible to get rid of so I would spend weeks in bed, in pain, unable to function!” Her rats ride on her shoulders wearing their soft leather harness and leash with a bright yellow tag that says ‘Service Animal Working, Please do not touch’.
The definition of a Service Animal for the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) right of access used to be any animal specially trained to assist a disabled person in their activities of daily life (see more later in this article on how this has now changed). Dani’s rats have flown with her across the country, been in Casinos in Vegas and Reno, and been in restaurants and grocery stores. “I have only had one instance of a business refusing to allow access after I explained what the animals do, and that they are bathed two times a week and never touch the ground. (making them cleaner than a Seeing Eye Dog!) Business owners can see for themselves that they are clean, well behaved, and totally non-threatening.”
Service rats came into Dani’s life totally by accident 10 years ago when her daughter was 11 and wanted to train therapy rats as a community service project. Because of her age, for Dani’s daughter and her rats to be certified the Delta Society required a parent to certify with the child. Dani had no problem doing that and it was during their time doing visits and training that her daughter noticed one of the rats was very sensitive to Dani’s spasms. “She told me she thought she could teach him to tell me when they were starting. And sure enough, she did. So my first Service Rat, Fuzzy, was also a registered Therapy Animal, as part of Delta Society’s Pet Partners program. It is very unusual for an animal to have the right personality to do both Service and Therapy work.”
The rats that become Dani’s service rats come from a breeder and begin their training at two weeks of age. The best pair out of a liter come to her at about eight weeks old socialized, leash and harness trained, little box trained, shoulder trained and ready to start out learning their alert skills. They must train with the person they will be working for and there is no agency that trains them. Generally they work in pairs so they can take turns having a break and potty time. “I carry a small wire and plastic cage that slides into a cloth and mesh carrier as their portable break room.”
“Rats are perfect Service animals for my issues because they are very similar to a dog in their skill set and way of relating to people,” continued Dani. “They are easily trained, bond to you just like a dog would, but are light enough, and calm enough to sit quietly on my shoulder for hours. They are clean, quiet, patient and carry less diseases than either dogs or cats.”
At the time of this interview Dani was awaiting a new pair because one of her current pair passed away suddenly, plus they were light colored which Dani stated are less tolerant of the sun. “I need two dark colored boys so they can work both inside and out. I prefer Dumbo Velveteens because they tend to be very mellow tempered and they look like a stuffed animal so they are less threatening to the general public.”
Before this last pair she had a solo rat named Michaelangelo; his partner washed out in training. However, according to Dani, Michaelangelo was enough all on his own who would potty on command and preferred to stay with her rather than take lengthy breaks. He was also supremely patient and tolerant of children when they would do education visits together. “When we did an ‘Animals at work’ day at the invitation of a nearby museum, he allowed over 300 children to pet him with no complaints.”
Unfortunately for Dani and others like her, things changed on March 15 of this year. Dani stated that up until then all she needed to do was be responsible for their training and behavior in public. Now the official definition of a service animal is “Any DOG trained to perform specific tasks such as guiding the blind and alerting a deaf person to sounds.” All other animals except miniature horse guide animals are now excluded and all emotional support animals are excluded, even dogs.
On a positive note, Dani’s city of Hesperia, California passed an ordinance that they would continue to go by the original definition of a Service Animal and would issue tags from Animal Control with a Doctor’s certification so that business owners can be assured that they are valid Service Animals. But outside of her own city, Dani is at the mercy of the business owner, and if it is a business that sells food they cannot enter due to health codes except where they are recognized as Service Animals. So no more trips to Disneyland, no more shopping trips to the mall, no more trips to Vegas or family reunions and Dani missed her local county fair for the first time in 11 years. “Without my boys I would be severely limited even in my own town and my health would suffer. The longer I am without them, the more frequent and severe my spasms become and the more pain I am in and less functional I become.”
From what Dani has been able to learn, this action was taken by the government because too many people were fraudulently claiming pets as service animals and because of the bad behavior of some service animals. “The changes do nothing to address either of those serious issues,” said Dani. “The responsibility for any service animal’s behavior is firmly on the shoulders of the person at the other end of the leash! Businesses don’t realize that they have always had the right to ask a service animal to leave their business if they are acting in an inappropriate manner–not housebroken, disruptive, destructive, threatening– and can charge the animal’s owner for any damages that animal may do!”
For anyone wishing to help in the fight to reverse the changes to the ADA and support education of businesses, Dani is a part of a Facebook community called “Save our service animals“.
Jennifer’s therapy rats have been present for several sessions now.“They are curious and happy about seeing a client come in to the office. Their regard for my clients does wonders for their self worth. Rats are also a great conversation starter and simply the act of petting one helps people to relax. Most of my work is done with kids and the rats have helped some of the quieter ones really open up.” With adult patients Jennifer likes to use rats need for community and ability to survive against all odds as a metaphor.
She hopes that more people will train rats as therapy animals and plans on continuing to do so herself. Reaction of patients so far has been great with many being surprised how cute and sweet rats are. “I hope that I can help change some opinions about a rat’s place in psychology; I don’t feel it is just in the maze or the lab. I think rats have a place in the counseling office and in direct clinical work with clients.” You can learn more about Jennifer by going to her work profile. She would love to hear from anyone with more questions about therapy rats.
Rats are helping their humans all over the world in so many ways—searching for land mines, screening for TB, drug sniffing and as therapy and service animals. Perhaps it’s time the world started rethinking their views on this brave, social creature who wants to please and help humans just as much as any dog. Maybe rats will be man’s new best friend.
You can learn more about the new ADA regulations by visiting their website.