No Side Effects! The Benefit of Therapy Cats
Piece and Photos Composed By: Kaitrin Higbee
This is Valentina. She’s a four-year-old Domestic Shorthair cat. She’s a sweetheart, loves to cuddle, and loves rolling around on the balcony in the sun. She’s also my Emotional Support Animal (ESA). In fact, Valentina is one of the most important parts of my treatment plan. She has no side effects, non-invasive, and completely natural. I’m writing about her because actually people know very little about ESAs.
My boyfriend has one as well. His ESA is a one-and-a-half year old cat named Mark (or, if you go by the Humane Society’s paperwork, Skid Mark).
When I first started to slide into my depressive episode, I put myself into therapy, and that was hard enough. I also used anti-depressants, which weren’t helping me quickly enough for my liking. One of my best friends told me about Emotional Support Animals.
An ESA is a companion animal (much like any household pet) that provides a therapeutic benefit. Because the ESA helps alleviate a disability, the ESA falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This means that, as long as your therapist, psychiatrist, or physician prescribed the ESA, your ESA can live with you even if you are in a “no pets allowed” apartment, and your landlord can’t charge you a pet deposit.
ESAs are not the same as service animals. Service animals are trained to perform tasks for an individual’s specific disability; in contrast, ESAs typically don’t have this formal training. An ESA does not have to be registered to become an Emotional Support Animal, so be wary of any websites trying to take money to register an animal as an ESA. This means most animals can qualify as an Emotional Support Animal. I chose a cat, as did my boyfriend. However, other people may feel more comfortable with a dog, ferret, mouse, or pony as their service animal. That’s okay!
So, how do you go about getting an Emotional Support Animal? First, talk to your landlord. I rent my apartment, so I went to the leasing office and spoke to a leasing agent. Since the company that owns my apartment owns many apartment complexes, they already had a process in place for Companion Animals. Normally, I’d need to be in a “pet-friendly” building, which would require a move within the apartment complex. To qualify for an ESA, all I needed to do was to provide my therapist’s number, fax number, address, and name. The apartment complex faxed the form to my therapist. I called my therapist to let him know the form would be faxed to him. We had already discussed me getting an ESA.
My therapist said something that surprised me when we discussed ESAs. While Emotional Support Animals are by no means a new thing, in my therapist’s entire career he had only written one other letter requesting an ESA for a patient. This surprised me, since a common argument against ESAs is that people could abuse this accommodation by faking a disability so that they wouldn’t have to pay a pet deposit. However, based on what I’ve heard from my therapists, this doesn’t happen.
Once your landlord has your letter or ESA form, you can pick out your ESA. I had been anxious to get an ESA, so my boyfriend and I spent a lot of time at our local Humane Society looking at cats. We probably saw 15 different cats before we settled on Valentina and Mark. Valentina was very quiet at the shelter, but she loved to cuddle. Mark, who was only six months old when we got him, was the opposite. He was very energetic and loved to play.
Once we picked out our cats, we submitted our adoption application. The humane society did a background check on us, and called the apartment complex to make sure we were allowed to have the animal. This is where the letter comes in. Without the letter, the Humane Society would not have let us take Valentina and Mark home.
Since we were getting two cats, they were companion tested with each other. That means that they put both cats in a room with my boyfriend and me to make sure that the cats didn’t hate each other. Valentina and Mark weren’t best buds, but they tolerated each other just fine.
Now, my boyfriend and I had a little bit of a mess when we first brought the cats home. Since Mark was an unaltered male, he had to be neutered. Valentina had already been put through the procedure. Luckily, the Humane Society had scheduled Mark to be neutered on Saturday (the day after we were adopted Valentina). The Humane Society gave us the option of having Mark be neutered (free to us) and then we would come get him on Monday. We jumped at the chance and brought Valentina home.
Valentina blossomed once we got her home. She was much more energetic, cuddly and an overall sweetheart. On Monday, my boyfriend picked up his cat, Mark, and brought him home. Once there, he simply dumped Mark out of his carrier in the living room, where Valentina also was
Valentina hated Mark in the beginning. To be completely fair, we did not introduce Mark in the appropriate fashion. Introducing a new cat (even if it’s only been 3 days) takes time and patience. We used Cat Mojo [https://youtu.be/gZrwcoiy_gY] and followed their instructions on introducing cats to each other. Mark was still very much a kitten, and as one of my friends reminded me when I started freaking out about the stress between Valentina and Mark, kittens can be rude. This was the case with Mark. He wanted to be Valentina’s friend very, very badly, but didn’t respect her space at all.
We then separated the cats. Valentina lived in my bedroom, and Mark stayed in the living room and kitchen. Each day, we site swapped the cats. We would first switch their toys, so each cat was accustomed to the other’s smell, and then we’d switch the cats. Valentina would play in the living room and Mark would play in the bedroom. We also started feeding the cats together, with a closed door between them. Within a week, Mark and Valentina had stopped hissing at each other, and within two weeks, they were best buds.
So the lesson here is make sure you research what you will need for your Emotional Support Animal, as well as making sure that if you have multiple animals, you introduce your new animal in the correct way. For the first couple of days, I was convinced that we’d have to take Mark back to the shelter.
Since getting the cats, Valentina and Mark have been a great help to my boyfriend and I. Depression can make you want to stay in bed all day, but when you have animals, you have to take care of them. You have to get up and feed the cat, scoop the litter box (because if you don’t, the cat will probably stand on you and cry until you feed him (Mark) or make a mess on your bath towel or floor (Valentina)). In my experience, getting up to help my cats helped me to break the “bed inertia”, which made me want to lie in bed all day.
Additionally, the cats made for wonderful distractions when I had panic attacks or when I was crying my eyes out. Valentina loves to cuddle, and she will sit on my neck and chest when she thinks that I am sad.
Both cats love to play, so both my boyfriend and I would play with the cats to distract ourselves from being sad. Finally, the cats are just silly. For example, when my depression got bad I would work from home. During those couple of months, I didn’t leave my apartment more than once a week. While I was trying to work through the panic attacks and work on the computer at the same time, Mark would distract me by trying to attack the mouse on my computer screen. It is very difficult to keep from laughing when a kitten is being adorable.
Moving forward, the cats continue to help my boyfriend and I. My boyfriend bonded with Mark, and Mark loves him unconditionally. Valentina helps me by offering kitty cuddles before I leave for work, and helps me decompress after work.
Make no mistake, Valentina and Mark aren’t silver bullets. However, ESAs are an amazing resource, and for many people they can provide a major boost to mental health. For me, it has proved to be a big piece of my treatment puzzle.
"Emotional Support Animal." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
Americans with Disabilities Act
Fair Housing Act
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act