The Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

*This article was originally published on my talented blogosphere friend, Nicole’s, blog, Uninspired. I highly recommend Nicole’s blog, especially her “Mental Health Monday” series, so go check her out!*

If you rewound my life 20 years to a dry summer day on my childhood Texas ranch, you’d probably find me in the chicken house. My (then) narrow bottom would be balanced on one of the 2-inch wide boards that made up “the chicken roost.”

If you sat down beside me, I’d shyly smile and wonder if you were going to fall through the roost into the less-than-pleasant “chicken duty” below. (Does anyone else refer to chicken poop by that term, by the way?)

If you listened, I’d tell you about the nesting boxes to our left. I’d tell you where my hens laid their eggs and took a much-needed break from the horny roosters. I’d point to a certain hen with a pale complexion and explain that she’s “setting” on her eggs because she wants a family. I would know exactly how many days until the hatchings began. I celebrated every egg that became a chick and grieved every egg that became only a 3-week old, rotten egg. If you noticed a sparkle in my eye, it was because time with my beloved farm animals was a safe and calming refuge for me. Especially when people did not understand, or didn’t know there was something they were missing.

Fast-forward to the present, and you’d notice my life has changed a bit.

I now live smack-dab in the middle of Boston, MA. I drive my little green Toyota all over, visiting hospice patients and their families. As idyllic as my childhood was at times, it also involved the deep, deep pain of abuse. So over the last few years, I’ve struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And once again, animals have played a role in daily life.

Well, one animal in particular. I have a soft, black, dwarf bunny named Nadia. Nadia is originally a Slavic name meaning “hope.” And believe me, I’ve needed all the hope I can get!

How does Nadia help me cope with PTSD? Sometimes my days are far from easy, so when I come home and fall on my bed, there’s someone else there. Depending on her mood, Nadia sniffs me, jumps all over me, hides from me, snuggles with me (rare), and yes — occasionally bites me!

Don’t tell Nadia this, but sometimes I do wish she was capable of reading and sensing my emotions and responding more…sensitively, shall I say? Maybe she’s more in tune with my emotional state than I give her credit for, but so far the results have been inconclusive.

But despite Nadia existing in her own bunny world, she’s still been of help in my worst moments.

Even a clueless rabbit is going to accidentally do something right now and then. One of Nadia’s moments to shine came one evening when I was laid out on my bed. I was experiencing PTSD symptoms of dissociation and emotional flooding. My kind and concerned housemate sat on the bed next to me, trying in vain to help me out of my dark hole. Then Nadia, in a dubious attempt to involve herself in the crisis, decided to climb my face.

You see, Nadia never got the memo about not touching, much less climbing on top of, trauma survivors when they are in their trauma-zone. So my housemate looked on anxiously as I flinched. And then. Well, how can you not laugh, trauma or not? This bunny of mine clawed and scooted her furry body across my cheek and forehead and chin, defining “clumsy” all over for me again. And once I chuckled, my housemate couldn’t help herself, either, so we lost it and that was the official end of my episode. Nadia scored big time that day!

The story of Nadia’s arrival in my life began three years ago, when I met and fell in love with a different bunny placed for adoption at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). This bunny was a favorite at the adoption center due to her easy-going, affectionate, even cuddly personality.

But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

I lived in an apartment complex at the time and my no-nonsense landlords would not hear of it. Shockingly, even offering them money didn’t work!

The next time I went after a bunny, though, I was well-armed with information about “Emotional Support Animals” (ESAs). My new landlord wasn’t particularly excited about my potential furry roommate, but when I said something about the law, he listened up!

Getting an emotional support animal is not very difficult, so as part II of this article, I’d like to breakdown the process into three steps you can take.

Step 1. Learn about the three categories of people-helping animals to make sure an emotional support animal fits your needs best.

  • Service Animal — These are formally-trained animals who’ve been taught how to care for their human’s specific emotional or physical needs. Classically, this is the dog who guides his blind owner safely across the road. Service animals, however, can be a help to people with a variety of needs. Service dogs are trained to paw gently at their humans who disassociate or self-harm, for example.
    • Psychiatric Service Dogs — The name pretty much says it all!
  • Therapy Animal — These pets don’t usually have special training. But they do have to be evaluated and registered as truly therapeutic and safe. Your mom’s cuddly cat who wouldn’t hurt a spider would qualify. Your Uncle Bob’s elderly, ear-biting parrot would not.
  • Emotional Support Animal (ESAs) — These are the easiest animals to qualify! All that’s necessary is that you, the pet owner, have a diagnosable mental illness and that you find them supportive to your emotional health. So if your Uncle Bob is clinically depressed and enjoys his ear-biting parrot, he would be set! The two perks of an emotional support animal are 1) landlords have to allow you to keep your emotional support animal — unless you rent a one-unit apartment or house — and 2) ESAs can fly the airlines with you for free!

Step 2: Once you’ve decided on an ESA, there are two things you’ll need to do. 

First, find an animal that will actually provide you with emotional support! Try not to make an uninformed or impulsive decision based on the cuteness factor of the first pet you see. Dogs and cats are popular choices for good reasons due to their intelligence and (sometimes) affectionate and loyal personalities. However, if you can’t afford someone to walk your dog while you work 9-5pm, or your housemates are allergic to cats, you may have to get creative! Just don’t expect a bunny to cuddle all evening while you watch TV or a parakeet to be potty-trainable. That won’t bode well for either of you!

Second, have your therapist “prescribe” this animal to you. Your therapist will write a letter stating that she is treating you for a mental illness, and is recommending an emotional support animal as a necessary part of your treatment plan. Read the details for the letter here (i.e. it needs to be printed on professional letter head). If you don’t have a willing therapist, contact Chilhowee Psychological Services for an online or phone-based disability assessment and prescription letter.

Step 3: Enjoy and take advantage of the benefits of having an emotional support animal! 

If you already own the qualifying pet, then all’s well! If not, once your landlord has received the prescription letter, go adopt or buy that pet of your dreams! My landlord requested the letter in a sealed envelope, so don’t be surprised if you get a similar request! And make sure your pet won’t tear up your landlord’s home. Like any other privilege granted by law, there are a few reasonable limits placed on what your pet is NOT allowed to do.

Before flying with your emotional support animal, make sure you’ve got a copy of your letter to show airport personnel! Also, most or all airlines will require you fax or send a less-than-one-year-old prescription letter at least 48 hours before your flight leaves so it can be verified. Rules like this one are a bit cumbersome, but don’t be like me — gambling on my innocent look, the cuteness level of my bunny, and the compassion of airline staff members. Lastly, be prepared for a security staff member to ask you to demonstrate that your animal is under control. For this simple procedure, I was taken to a private room and asked to remove my bunny from her carrier and hold her for a moment while two airport personnel looked on. It was awkward, but harmless enough!

In closing, I encourage you to do your own research on ESAs as well!

My advice and guidelines aren’t fool-proof and regulations inevitably change over time. My favorite website, and the one I used and linked to throughout this article, is the National Service Animal Registry. This site is user-friendly and provides a detailed breakdown of each of the steps I’ve discussed above.

If at any point in the process you feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to voice your questions and concerns to someone you trust! After all, those of us pursuing an emotional support animal are doing so for a reason, right? Be gentle and patient with yourself in this adventure.

Finally, Nadia and I wish you and your furry — or feathery or scaled — friend much comfort, fun, and healing together!

thawingout

I am a Texan-born Bostonian who wants to understand how we get through hard things in life (aka trauma) using spirituality, meaningful work, life-giving hobbies, connection with other trauma survivors, friendships with non-traumatized people, animals, etc. I am a hospice social worker (LCSW) and I have a bunny named Nadia.

2 Replies to “The Benefits of an Emotional Support Animal

  1. Thanks so much for stopping by Uninspired and sharing your wisdom with my readers! Emotional support animals can be such a huge help and having the exact steps to getting one will make lots of lives easier! 🙂

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