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Animals: assistance, therapy, companions, or pets?

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

"I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us, cats look down on us, but pigs treat as as equals." - Sir Winston Churchill

Whatever you think of other species, it's a rare person that doesn't have a favourite animal or doesn't like animals at all. We often care for them as pets, in intensely personal ways, like children. They rely on us for the necessities in life and we expect their loyalty and unconditional love.

There's a significant body of social evidence demonstrating the benefits of having pets and companion animals around us. There's also longstanding scientific evidence of the functional benefits for trained assistance and therapy animals.

But when is an animal a pet and when is it a therapeutic tool or functional support?

This subject is apart of a broader discussion that has been thrown around the NDIS world since inception. Finally the agency has released a specific guideline and some fact sheets to help clear up this hotly debated grey area.

In particular they focus on:

  • what an assistance animal is

  • how we make reasonable and necessary decisions regarding funding for assistance animals, including dog guides

  • what information we need to decide if we can fund an assistance animal

  • how participants can access funding in their plans for these supports

  • examples of when we would and would not fund an assistance animal.

Essentially the agency has defined three distinct categories of animals and they have outlined why they would, or wouldn't, provide funding for that situation. The categories are:

Pets and companion animals

No funding.

The main, and obvious point here being that pets are an everyday expense and not disability related. Anyone who wants a pet does so usually out of a desire for companionship amongst other reasons. Pets are not disability specific.

Therapy animals

Not usually funded.

A few important points here:

  1. Therapy by unqualified people is generally not funded

  2. It's ok if a qualified therapist uses an animal as part of the therapy process

  3. If there are additional costs to use an animal (e.g. expense to hire a horse) then the agency is not likely to fund that extra cost

  4. The additional cost of an animal is unlikely to provide value for money compared with other therapies

Assistance animals

Usually funded.

The obvious example is a trained guide dog for a vision impaired person. Without the animal the person would likely need more hours of support from staff and have reduced independence.

This support is related to a disability, it is value for money, and it aligns with a participant's goal to build capacity and independence.

These new fact sheets and guidelines are long overdue and hopefully they will assist in clarifying the important difference between assistance animals and our much loved pets.

Addendum 30/12/2021: The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has overturned the NDIA's refusal to fund an assistance dog in a very specific case. The Guardian has an article here and the full judgement will be available online soon.

Like everything in the NDIS world, the boundaries are constantly in flux.

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