Managing a chronic illness is a never ending, full-time job. When you’re already running on empty, without the energy to function at regular jobs or at home, life can feel hopeless and pointless. Many illnesses are what the medical world terms invisible, meaning the person who’s suffering can still appear (physically) healthy. Because of this, the outside world frequently lacks understanding when it comes to what living with illness should look like. With so many inaccurate stigmas surrounding the topic at hand, those in the healthy community can be quick to cast judgments and voice them quite loudly.
This can make it hard for chronically ill individuals to enjoy their good days without guilt. They often isolate themselves from those they once called friends, rather than spending that time having fun. It can be a very lonely, depressing, and anxious experience; especially when someone doesn’t have a network of like-minded people to talk to within the chronic illness community.
When it comes to ESAs, dogs are most frequently thought of and talked about. It’s important to remember that other pets can offer just as much support. Any animal that provides support, well-being, comfort, or aid to an individual through companionship, unconditional positive attention, and affection may be regarded as an Emotional Support Animal. My ESA just happens to be a tabby cat named Fenway, and this is our story.
When I was nineteen, my best friend and I spent summers as children’s camp counselors. During that time, we were both bitten by ticks while at work. As a result, we got Lyme disease. Sadly, many doctors and medical facilities weren’t yet aware of how common and easy it was to contract the disease. When first showing symptoms, the person infected (often) appears to have caught meningitis. I was tested for that, but my tests came back negative. My Lyme disease then went untreated (and undiagnosed) for well over a decade. By the time it was discovered, I had irreversible damage all throughout my body.
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
My mental health and wellness were negatively influenced by those who doubted my disease, as well as negatively impacted by Lyme symptoms themselves. On top of that, I had a lot of mental health struggles from childhood trauma. Getting an illness in addition to my already present struggles was some really awful icing on an already terrible cake. I experienced increased anxiety, irrational fears, racing thoughts, trouble sleeping, periods of hopelessness, and overwhelming sadness. I was also very lonely and developed some counterproductive behaviors as coping mechanisms.
A few years ago, I adopted a cat from a friend who was moving. It was during the worst of my illness, and I hoped we could both benefit from the company. I’d keep him from being re-homed to a shelter, and he’d be around while my spouse was at work. At the time, I didn’t realize just how much I needed him for my mental wellness, or just how beneficial his presence in my life would be. He became so much more than a four-legged friend; he became a source of comfort and essential to my wellness plan.
Seven years later, we just celebrated his eleventh birthday, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Fenway Mufasa, my once timid Tabby who hid under the bed whenever he heard a loud noise, is now a very vocal boy who hates to leave my side. When I’m having a very bad day, he’s also the reason I bother to get out of bed at all.
So how does my Emotional Support Cat help me when I’m not only physically ill, but mentally exhausted?
There are many ways that Fenway assists me on a day-to-day basis, but his most prominent functions are the ones listed here!
Most can relate to the benefits of having a friend to hang out with when we’re feeling consumed by our problems or negative emotions. People aren’t always around though, and having an illness can make going out to meet them really hard. That’s where Fenway’s help comes in. Simply hanging out with him gives me a break from just sitting and dwelling, and helps de-escalate dark thoughts. Whenever he’s with me, I feel less alone.
Unlike people, Fenway never judges me for anything. He wants to be with me regardless of my health, mood, looks, or attitude. On days when I’m feeling more critical and lacking self-compassion, he reminds me that I’m lovable just because I’m me. He’s also there whenever I need to cry or vent. Of course, he can’t give me advice. He may not even understand me. Even still, he’s still what I’d consider a listening ear. Sometimes, all it takes is letting my emotions out without the fear of judgment. Sometimes, an impartial purr and cat kisses are more therapeutic than outsiders’ words.
Studies have proven that petting an animal raises a person’s endorphins; specifically their serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. These “feel good” chemicals help with mood, sleep, and stress regulation. Petting and cuddling Fenway definitely does that and more. I find repetition cathartic when I’m overwhelmed. Loving on him has the same comforting effect as watching a familiar movie, listening to favorite songs, or spending some time with my husband.
As mentioned above, it can be a huge challenge to get out of bed when I’m running on empty. Yet like with a human child, my fur baby depends on me for his basic needs. He still needs to eat, wants to play, and expects attentiveness throughout the day. He’s also a creature of habit, and very much prefers to keep some level of routine. These responsibilities may sound overwhelming for someone who’s already struggling, but they actually ensure that every single day has some form of purpose.Even if all that I do is get up and go downstairs to feed him, it serves as the low-impact exercise I otherwise might skip. When feeling low or dealing with overwhelming thoughts, I’ve admittedly neglected my own basic needs, such as eating. That being said, I’d never let my cat go hungry. And trust me, he wouldn’t forgo a meal either; not without singing the song of his people until he got his noms!
I’ve also found that once I’m up, I sometimes feel better than fear or depression had me believing I would. Many times that one small action leads me to take others: since I’m already downstairs, I may as well eat too; since I now have fuel, maybe I should shower; that shower or bath felt amazing, so maybe I’ll go for a walk or even do some errands.
While all paw-rents find their furry children to be a great treasure, Emotional Support Animals go a bit above and beyond the status quo. The love, companionship, and assistance that an ESA offers is specific to their owner’s needs and these animals know exactly when and how to meet those needs! I hope my personal experiences with my support cat help others with their own health and wellness decisions. If you suffer from a chronic illness or a mental health disorder, an ESA or PSA may be the perfect fit for you. They offer practical help, along with a sense of safety and security for those in need. Click here to see if you meet the ESA or PSA qualifications and begin your journey to experiencing less stress and more freedom today.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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