Having An Emotional Support Animal
Last updated: June 2022
Back in 2017, my dad surprised me with a puppy; a 2-month-old, adorable pitbull who I named Harley. At the time, I was struggling a great deal with depression, even bordering on being suicidal. As you can expect, for a few weeks, the newness and excitement of having a puppy broke through the monotony and depression. After a while, though, I began to feel it creeping back again. I quickly realized how comforting it was to have a warm, little puppy to hold.
Someone to whom I didn't have to explain myself; someone whom I didn't feel I was burdening with my emotions and problems; someone who was simply... there. At my next appointment, I asked my doctor about how to go about making her my emotional support animal (ESA) and what that entailed.
What is an ESA and how do I get one?
An emotional support animal is "an animal that provides comfort just by being with a person."1ESAs are not considered "pets", and as such have special laws pertaining to housing and travel.2 They are NOT to be confused with "service animals" as they don't need to be trained to perform a specific task. Service animals have their own definition and laws associated with them under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They are not restricted by species or breed.
To get an ESA, you must demonstrate to a mental health professional that you have a qualifying condition, like depression or anxiety. They will write for you an official letter on official letterhead that you can show if documentation is required to prove that your animal is an ESA, such as in the case of overriding a no-pets policy in an apartment. In most cases, this letter is all of the documentation you will need.
How Harley helps me in my day-to-day life
A sense of purpose and responsibility
Before I adopted Harley, I felt stagnant. I was lacking in purpose and felt like a burden to my family. Getting a dog didn't fix all of that, but I did feel a sense of being needed. Anyone who has owned a puppy will tell you that they are quite a bit of work, and Harley was. I epitomized the term "helicopter parent", but doing all of that work helped me feel like I had a role to play.
I've always found my breathing treatments tedious, especially as a kid. Part of the reason for this is that I would get lonely and bored. Because my machine makes so much noise, it was hard to watch tv, or have someone sit and talk with me while I do it. As a puppy, Harley learned that treatment time equated to snuggle time. While she doesn't carry on much of a conversation, it's still nice to have the company. Sometimes, we even pass the time throwing her ball and playing with her toys.
While I have nothing against cats, I am a needy pet owner and I find that dogs are more suited to my pet-parenting-style. Whereas cats may be prone to wander away from home for a time, Harley doesn't go anywhere without either me or my fiance. I never have to worry that she'll be "busy" or unavailable. If I'm having a bad day and want comfort, or even a good day and want someone to just be happy with, my dog is right there with me.
Some dogs are naturally high-energy, mine is not one of them. I thought that getting a dog would help me become more of a morning person; it didn't. We often joke that she's a "potato-dog" because she is content to nap and relax on the couch all day if that's what I'm inclined to do. However, if I want to go out for a walk or a hike, she loves that too.
No expectations, just love
Harley is very empathetic. (I've found that to be the case with dogs in general, really.) Even still, if I'm upset or crying, she comes to be near me (or on me, if she can manage it.) Just a few weeks ago, in fact, while talking to my counselor about some pretty heavy stuff I got emotional and the next thing I know, I'm fighting for video space with my dog. My counselor has mentioned that on many occasions she's noticed Harley come to check on me during our video visits. I've also noticed, for my part, that the repetitive motion of petting her helps to ground me when I'm feeling especially anxious. I call it "panic-petting", and it's usually accompanied by crazy-eyes and the mantra, "this is fine. Everything is fine."
In all seriousness though, my dog's love is truly unconditional. She doesn't have any expectations or caveats, she's never disappointed or mad at me. It doesn't matter what I've done (or haven't done) on a given day, how productive I've been, how grumpy or cheerful - she ALWAYS loves me.
NOTE: The information provided is subject to my own research skills; If there is anything that you find incorrect or out of date, kindly let me know in the comments. While my emotional support animal of choice is a dog, I'm sure many people experience these same feelings and benefits with cats, birds, etc. If you have an ESA and want to share, leave a comment.
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