Chloe the assistance cat could make legal history with her handler, Ian Fenn, after Sainsbury’s refused to allow her into one of its shops.
Fenn, who has autism and has trained the black cat to be a support for him, is taking legal action against the supermarket.
He says Chloe prevents sensory overload and should be treated like a guide dog or any other aid designed to help someone with a disability.
On a visit to Sainsbury’s in Clapham, south London, in March, Fenn was told by security and staff that he would need to leave the cat outside. After he complained, Sainsbury’s told him it would only allow assistance dogs into its stores.
Chris Fry, who specialises in disability discrimination actions and is bringing a case for Fenn under the Equality Act, said: “There are plenty of cases about guide dogs being refused access to places or services but there hasn’t really been any judicial exploration of what constitutes an assistance animal if it’s not a dog.”
Hospitals, shops and hotel chains have allowed Fenn, a product designer from south London, to bring Chloe along for assistance. The black cat is on a lead when he takes her to shops and wears a fluorescent yellow “service cat” jacket. She typically sits on Fenn’s shoulders as he walks around.
“Chloe accompanies me to hospital, GP, and blood donation appointments,” Fenn wrote using Chloe’s Twitter handle on Friday.
“We’ve been to zoos and aquariums where biosecurity needs to be considered. We’ve been to other supermarkets. What is so special about Sainsbury’s, who originally said I was welcome in any store?”
Sainsbury’s said it was working with an environmental health team to see if there was a way for Fenn and his cat to visit safely. The company argued that even though Chloe might be well-mannered, if it changed its policy then other cats may cause havoc and there was no way of checking an animal’s level of training.
Fenn says Chloe makes it easier for him to cope in everyday situations while living with an autism spectrum disorder. “I get sensory overload in busy environments and tend to shut down. But with Chloe I can focus on her, he told the BBC.
“She brings structure to my life, she wakes me up in the morning, she tells me when to go to bed. It’s difficult to know how she feels about the relationship, but I feel that we’re a team now.”
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “We want to be an inclusive retailer where people love to work and shop and understand that some of our colleagues and customers may need support in our stores. At the same time, safety is our highest priority and our colleagues are trained to balance maintaining our high food hygiene standards with supporting all our customers who shop with us.”
“We are in contact with the local environmental health team to see if there are ways we can help Mr Fenn to visit our store without compromising this.”