I adopted Elliot on September 23, 2005. The only pet I’d had before him was a fish. But after caring for my friends’ cats, I wanted to adopt one of my own – someone to keep me company. I joked that I’d just started law school and I needed someone to love but I didn’t have time for a boyfriend. Elliot brought so much joy to my life.
Exactly a year later, I adopted Kennedy. I knew Elliot needed a friend for the times I was away – the long days at school and the many hospital visits. Kennedy and Elliot loved each other from the start and their love carried me through some very hard times.
Any pet owner knows how dear their pets are to them. Pets are part of the family.
And if you’re disabled – mentally or physically, you know just how much pets are part of your healthcare. They heal you, they keep you grounded, they are your constant companions willing to love you no matter what.
I know that “emotional support animal” is often the brunt of jokes. But the truth is, they save many of us. Elliot and Kennedy save me.
Because I know people might ask, I should start by telling you a bit of the laws around emotional support animals. According to the Michigan State University College of Law,
An emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal that is recognized as a “reasonable accommodation” for a person with a disability under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHAct, 42 U.S.C.A. 3601 et seq.). The assistance animal is not a pet according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is the agency that oversees the FHAct and investigates claims of housing discrimination.
There are only two questions that HUD says a housing provider should consider with a request for an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation:
(1) Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
(2) Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?
Emotional support animals are not service animals. Service animals are working animals who are trained and registered to provide care to a disabled person. While places like grocery stores and offices must allow service animals in their place of business, they do not necessarily have to accommodate emotional support animals. For more information on service animals, the Department of Justice has a FAQ document here.
Elliot and Kennedy are my emotional support animals. I have been allowed to keep them at my apartment and in the motel I lived in because of my mental and physical disabilities. Without them, I am lost.
A few things they do for me (and certainly many with emotional support animals can relate):
- Keep me active: Some days it’s really hard to get out of bed for mental or physical pain. I may not be able to do much, but I am able to get up and make sure they have food and water and to take care of the litter. And sometimes, Elliot will still play fetch or Kennedy will chase a string. I know that seems menial to some, but many days are a struggle. Having my cats to take care of, keeps me engaged even if at a minimal level.
- Make me laugh: We know that laughter reduces stress, is good for your heart, and releases endorphins to name a few benefits. Elliot and Kennedy are always doing something hilarious – Elliot chasing his tail or Kennedy hiding under a new box or pouncing on my feet under the blankets. The laughter reminds me that life is fun sometimes.
- Help ground me: Grounding is a tool people with mental health illnesses often use to stay present. By listening to music or slow breathing or petting my cats, I can calm down from a panic attack or come back from a dissociative state. Elliot often sits right next to me and will let me hold him close. Kennedy doesn’t like to be held but even putting my hand on his fur helps when the distress is overwhelming. My psychiatrist even wrote in my care plan to “keep enjoying my cats and their purrs” because he knows how much this can help me.
- Provide comfort and company: I am alone most of my days. Other than appointments and errands, I rarely get out. For a time, I couldn’t get outside for more than 8 hours a week. When I lived in the motel, I was terrified to go outside. Elliot and Kennedy keep me from going crazy from complete isolation.
- Make me feel loved: I have been hurt a lot in my life. I have faced many things that no one should have to face. Most days I still feel worthless and unlovable. But then here are these 2 beings who sit by my side through the good and the bad. They love me despite my deepest flaws, despite my past, despite the strife we’ve faced. That love heals me and gives me a reason to live.
I know what I’d do without them, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t say that lightheartedly. I say that with every ounce of my being. It was in the moments I felt that I couldn’t care for them that some of my suicide attempts occurred. It was when they were hurt by others that I hurt the most. It was when I couldn’t find housing and was living in my car while my cats stayed with a foster family that I took the greatest amount of insulin to try to kill myself. Because if I didn’t have them, I had nothing.
Perhaps that seems dramatic, but that is my reality.
My cats are part of my healthcare. They aren’t just emotional support – they are life support.
Unfortunately, when our pets get sick, we are often put in dire straights. Even for those with jobs and a decent income can be drowned in debt from veterinary care. And unlike humans, no one has to take care of them. If you go to an ER in America, you have to be treated (though you may still end up in exorbitant debt). If you take a cat to a vet ER, they do not have to treat your cat. Transportation to the vet, too, is an issue. Affording medications, running tests, long term treatment – all of it adds up and many people see as superfluous. Not everyone quite understands how crucial pets can be to a person’s ability to survive.
I have faced this before. Elliot once got sick when I lived in Austin and had no car and sporadic income. I can’t remember how I got there, because I knew I couldn’t take him on the bus, but we got to a clinic and all they could do was give him a little bit of fluids. I was lucky he recovered from whatever was ailing him.
I remember calling everywhere to get him help. I called the ASPCA and a veterinary school and any organization I could think of. All they could tell me then was that I could give him up for adoption or they could put him down. It was terrifying.
I am facing the terror again. Elliot is sick and needed the vet ER. Luckily this time I have a car and there are some low income clinics that may be able to help (no one is telling me to give him up), but the funds for his care are non-existent. With $910/month from disability and $85/month of food stamps, there generally aren’t spare nickle and dimes let alone hundreds of dollars (thousands? if they find more is wrong) in vet bills. And unfortunately, medicare does not see their care as a medical expense for me – which it truly is. Elliot and Kennedy are my metaphorical wheelchair. Without them, I cannot function.
The ER we went to today was kind enough to listen to my story and do what they could to help but they could only do so much. I do not like asking for help. It is embarrassing. It makes me feel like a horrible cat mother to not take care of the two who rely on me and give more to me than I can ever return. I will do anything for them, so I am writing this post not just to talk about the importance of emotional support animals, but to ask you for help to support Elliot and Kennedy.
If you can help me with their veterinary care in any way, I have set up a PayPal link at: https://www.paypal.me/gilmerhealth
For their regular needs, I have an Amazon wish list here.
And if you don’t feel comfortable donating to me directly, these are the low-income clinics they referred me to that you could donate to their mission. You may also consider looking up any low-income clinics in your area and donating to them.
- Cats Are the Unsung Heroes of Mental Health
- “A study by the Cats Protection agency in the UK surveyed 600 participants, half of whom struggled with their mental health. They discovered that 87% of cat owners found their cats to have a positive effect on their well-being. In addition, 76% reported cats made regular stressors easier to manage.”
- “Cornwell College student Filipa Denis studied the benefit of human attachment with cats, and found that humans who were attached to their cats experienced great calming effects from the relationship. Cats also fulfill the human need for touch, especially for those whose mental illness prevents them from easily forming attachments with other people. Contrary to popular belief, cats can be affectionate and attached to their humans as well.”