Princess is a 17-year-old Maine coon who Lisa Davis found at a local Petco adoption event. Davis had lost her previous cat 6 months earlier; she knew that she “wanted an adult cat who could wait for me to get home from work” — and not a rambunctious kitten.
She and Princess clicked. The cat was “really shy,” but that didn’t deter Davis, who was “very shy myself, so I understood her anxieties.” Long story short, Princess ended up going home with her. “She has been a constant source of joy and comfort to me since then.”
But there was more to it than that. Davis suffered from anxiety and depression, and Princess made it possible for her to deal with both. The Maine coon who nobody else had wanted became an emotional support animal (ESA), complete with a letter from Davis’s doctor allowing her to “move into any apartment, including ones that do not allow animals.”
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Those of us with companion animals already know how they can transform our lives — how just being with them can make the day’s tensions slip away. So how do ESAs differ from those companion animals? Or from service animals or therapy animals?
It is, I think, really easy to blur the borders. But ESAs, according to Meowingtons, help “mitigate the negative symptoms of a person’s emotional or psychological disability by calming and reducing emotional distress. … An ESA can be any domesticated animal — cat, dog, rabbit, snake, pig, etc. — and must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional (therapist, psychiatrist) and have a letter showing that they are part of the individual’s treatment plan.”
ESA animals like Princess have rights under the Air Carrier Act of 1986 and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 that pets don’t have. Aside from the fact that no-pet housing clauses don’t apply to them, they can fly for free with their humans.
This has, as culture writer Mary Karmelek points out, “led to abuse of the system. Many pet owners who have no legitimate disabilities are claiming ESAs because they don’t want to leave their pets at home or pay for boarding.” And it has, in turn, made things more difficult for those who do have those disabilities.
Davis, by the way, “would not travel with her [Princess] or expect her to go on a plane” because she doesn’t want to “add any stress for her to deal with. Emotional support is a 2-way street for me.”
Service animals are dogs (and occasionally miniature horses) who have been “specifically trained to do certain major life tasks for a person with physical or severe psychiatric disabilities,” explains Jane Harrell.
Unlike ESAs, service animals have to undergo extensive certification training; they are also registered. Because of the work they do, they have access to public places and businesses that other animals, including ESAs, don’t have.
Therapy animals are also trained and certified. In theory, any animal can become one, but we usually associate cats and dogs with this kind of work. They go into convalescent homes, hospitals, hospices, schools and disaster areas, and they work their magic.
Many years ago, I sat through a Pet Day program at a local convalescent home and watched several dogs bring life and light back to the eyes of the residents.
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Questions About ESAs
For many people, the jury’s still out on ESAs.
“I think animals can reach lots of people outside of traditional models of treatments,” observes Molly Crossman, a Yale researcher. “Animals might bring a few extra people in because they’re appealing and can … facilitate entry into treatment. … Roughly 30% of people in need of treatment get any kind of treatment, and I would say that’s a pretty conservative estimate. Animals are not gonna take that from 30 to 100%. That’s just not going to happen.”
Most of the ESA research focuses on dogs, she adds. “We start with dogs, and I think a lot of other research groups do as well because it seems like dogs are … specially designed, for lack of a better word, to interact with people, to understand our social and emotional cues.”
That last part bothers me. Not because I don’t like dogs (I do), but because it’s a generalization, and I definitely don’t like those. Cats and horses — and a number of other animals — are extremely sensitive to human “social and emotional cues.” And I think that the research needs to be broadened to include those animals.
Yes, there are people “gaming” the ESA system — but during my research, I also came across comments from people who were utterly sincere about how their animals helped them cope. “I think all our furbabies bring comfort into our lives by just living in the present and reminding us about what is really important,” Davis reflects. “Princess is sitting next to me right now. Just looking at her makes me feel calmer and more peaceful.”
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