- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2011

Dani Moore uses a rat perched on her shoulder as a service animal to alert her to spasms from a disabling condition. Daniel Greene’s service animal is a snake wrapped around his neck to help him predict epileptic seizures.

But these creatures and many others are no longer acceptable as service animals under new federal guidelines issued March 15 by the U.S. Department of Justice for the Americans With Disabilities Act. The new recommendations limit service animals to dogs and housebroken miniature horses.

The new guidelines are not binding to states, municipalities and other agencies, which are free to adopt the policy or to make their own. But individuals who rely on other types of animals to help them manage physical disabilities and conditions are worried.

The law used to say a service animal could be any animal trained to do a task for an individual, said Don Brandon, director of the Northwest Americans With Disabilities Act Center in Seattle. The new policy allowing only dogs and the miniature horses “excludes automatically yard animals, rodents, spiders, snakes, monkeys and cats,” Mr. Brandon said.

Service animals also exclude animals that provide emotional support or comfort, he said.

The DOJ decided to revise its service animal regulation because of comments from businesses, state and local governments and individuals with disabilities, including several who use service animals, department spokesman Xochitl Hinojosa said.

People were putting vests on pocket pets and calling them service animals, Mr. Brandon said. “Changes were needed.”

When Miss Moore, 55, heard about the new law, she went to the City Council in Hesperia, Calif., where she lives, and asked lawmakers to enact an ordinance that would allow her to continue using rats to alert her to spasms she can’t feel because of spinal nerve injuries, fibromyalgia and osteoporosis of the spine. When her rat feels Miss Moore shaking, he starts licking her neck, she explained, so she can take medication and stop the spasms before they start.

She uses pudding to train her rats, she said.

Despite opposition from one councilman who cited health concerns and the risk of litigation, the council adopted an ordinance keeping the old definition and allowing Miss Moore to continue using her rats as service animals. It goes into effect in this high desert community 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles on April 14.

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