While there’s no doubt that animals (especially cats) can be loving companions, there’s been plenty of debate over the years about whether or not they can actually provide emotional support to those suffering from mental health problems.
The truth is, having an emotional support animal (ESA) can change your life. Beyond the emotional and psychological benefits that a pet can provide, they can also just be good company, especially for someone who has social anxiety related to a major extent and thus have difficulty integrating into social situations.
Unsure what exactly ESAs are but want to know more? We break down the basics of ESAs and why cats as ESAs make so much sense below.
What is an emotional support animal (ESA)?
An emotional support animal, or ESA, is a companion pet that helps to relieve symptoms connected to an emotional or psychological disability by helping to calm down those experiencing major distress.
Generally speaking, they can be really helpful for people struggling with depression or anxiety because they help put them at ease. For those coping with disorders that impact their ability to socialize, ESAs can provide a vital layer of support and love.
This might sound like service animal territory, but in fact, ESAs are very different from service animals. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal (and specifically, dogs) as animals that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
Unlike service animals that receive specific training to better assist their human companions, ESAs usually don’t have any training beyond what might seem ordinary for a pet.
They don’t perform special tasks and might still do typical pet things, such as inappropriate elimination or other types of unwanted behavior.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a specific pet is a bad ESA if those behaviors occur. Instead, the important thing to keep in mind with an ESA is that it’s still just a loving pet.
Another thing to remember is that ESAs can technically be any animal – cats aren’t the only type of pet that might qualify.
From dogs to chickens, animals of all sorts can technically be considered ESAs if they help deliver support, aid, or comfort to a person through affection and companionship.
Legal protections for ESAs
Gaining ESA status can afford pets unique rights that aren’t accessible to other animals. The most significant of these rights are in airfare and housing. In both the Fair Housing Act of 1988 (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), ESAs are afforded special recognition, a major coup for mental health advocates and pet lovers alike.
Under the ACAA, ESAs were given consent to accompany mentally or emotionally unwell people during trips in the cabinet of an aircraft carrier.
But it’s more than just that, because under that act, you don’t have to pay additional fees or purchase an extra ticket to travel by air with your pet.
To take advantage of this, it’s a good idea to contact your airline at least 48 hours in advance of your travel date and have all documentation needed on hand and available by request.
The FHA can impact your life tremendously if you’re a renter or living in a condo, because under it, ESAs are allowed access to domiciles that might otherwise be closed off to pets.
This can apply to on-campus housing, since colleges do have to be compliant with the FHA.
Additionally, it offers protections to tenants with ESAs against potentially discriminatory acts from landlords or homeowner associations. In the event that an application is turned down or additional fees – including pet security deposits – are requested to have a pet in your home, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and have legal safeguards against any retaliatory actions.
How to get an ESA
If you struggle with anxiety, depression, panic disorder, PTSD, or other mental illnesses, you may benefit from ESAs.
Consulting with a doctor or trained healthcare professional can help you determine whether or not adopting a pet is the right option for you, since ultimately having an ESA also means taking on all the responsibilities that come with pet ownership.
Fortunately, there isn’t a specific registry or legal process that you need to jumpstart in order to get emotional support from your pet. In fact, documenting your pet as an ESA is completely voluntary, unless you’re trying to fly with benefits under the ACAA or rent with protections from the FHA.
Some sites suggest you need certification, and offer this at a for-profit rate, but these certificates aren’t considered legally binding and in most cases, are actually scams.
If you want to take advantage of the legal protections granted to ESAs – especially while flying – then a letter from a psychologist or mental health professional currently treating you is all you need.
Why cats make great ESAs
While any animal could potentially be an ESA, cats are an ideal option because they’re naturally affectionate and intelligent animals, and they’re often very attuned to subtle changes or emotional shifts in ways that humans may not be immediately aware of.
Because of this, they can help create a more relaxing and calming environment in your home, and help to set you at ease following stressful or emotionally overwhelming events.
Unlike other animals, cats are also independent and non-intrusive. Unlike dogs, which can be loud or at times difficult to care for due to special needs, cats are extremely self-sufficient, while also being generally tidy and quiet.
While some may question a cat’s loyalty and dedication compared to that of a dog, any cat owner knows that felines are some of the most loving animals around.
The most important thing is finding a cat that fits your home, lifestyle, and above all, personality.
But once you do, you can start to develop the kind of bond that can truly lift you in times of hardship and leave you feeling fuller and more optimistic, which is what cats as ESAs are truly capable of.