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My Emotional Support is My Cat

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

As a cat behaviorist, I understand the bond between people and their cats. This bond is felt all too painfully when we lose our furry companions. My pet bereavement counselling deals with the agonizing loss people experience when their their fur kids cross The Rainbow Bridge. I’ve suffered this myself, all too often. The loss of my two feline siblings last year came at a time when I was going through one of the worst experiences of my life. Had I not had the rest of my fur kids with me I wonder if I would have gotten through any of these events. Regardless of what people may say or believe, my cats ARE my emotional support. And finally there is some scientific evidence to prove this is so. But before we talk about the science, let’s talk about the difference between emotional support cats and therapy cats.

The Definitions

Let’s get this out of the way first, yes, there is such a thing as an emotional support cat and a therapy cat. According to the ESA Registration of America’s website, therapy animals have a different function than emotional support animals.

  • Therapy animals are companions brought to a specific location to help people cope with things going on in their lives. They often visit hospitals, retirement homes, schools and nursing homes.

  • The handler of a therapy animal is only responsible for the care and transportation of the animal and supervising the interaction with the people at the facility

  • There is no specific training for a therapy animal and, unlike emotional support animals, there is little registration required.

  • Therapy animals don’t have access to public transportation, hotels and other places that emotional support animals do.

CertaPet defines emotional support animals this way, “An emotional support animal (ESA) is a pet that provides companionship to a person who suffers from symptoms of an emotional or mental disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and more.”

There is no requirement to register your emotional support cat but you can obtain an official registration

CertaPet has a wealth of information about emotional support cats. First and foremost is that there is no requirement to register your emotional support cat and there is no registration organization. To prevent rental discrimination or refusal to allow your cat to travel with you, you can have your cat registered officially as an emotional support companion. This requires a letter from your therapist stating that you’ve met the qualifications that designate your cat as an emotional support cat.

The letter must contain information such as:

  • You are a current patient of the signing mental health professional.

  • Your disability should be described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders Version V.

  • Substantially limited in performing or participating in at least one of life’s major activities because of your disability.

  • Having an Emotional Support Animal is an integral part of the treatment of your current condition.

  • The ESA letter must be dated and no older than a year.

The rights protections provided to emotional support animals are derived from The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Air Carrier Access Act and the Rehab Act. A number of states have enacted their own legislation for their residents.

It’s best to talk to your therapist about your specific condition when you are asking for a letter for your emotional support cat. There are a broad range of conditions such as anxiety disorder, PTSD, ADD, depression, learning disabilities, etc. that qualify.

The Science

Now that we’ve established there are emotional support cats and that they can be officially recognized as such, what does science say about the emotional help a cat can provide to us?

In a recent article featured in the latest HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute) newsletter titled, “Study finds first scientific evidence that emotional support animals benefit those with chronic mental illness”, the science of emotional attachment was addressed.

The article is from MedicalExpress and repots on a study published by The University of Toledo. The conclusion of the study is that animals can indeed provide “quantifiable benefits to individuals with serious mental illness who are experiencing depression, anxiety and loneliness.”

The research gives scientific credence to what we cat owners have known for years

The research gives scientific credence to what we cat owners have known for years, our felines understand when we are stressed, depressed, lonely, etc. and their behavior (and sometimes mere presence) helps us through the toughest of times.

Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, a professor of social work and the lead investigator on the project is hoping that this breakthrough study will spark additional research. Until now, no scientific research has been published that has focused on the benefits of emotional support animals. Health professionals have seen the benefit for their patients and there is quite a body of documentation that support their experience, but the science has not been there.

All participants in the University of Toledo pilot study had to meet the criteria of low income and be identified as at risk of social isolation and all were referred by their mental health providers.

Participants were tested for three biomarkers that are related to stress and bonding. They documented the patient’s depression, anxiety and loneliness before the pet adoptions and then at the end of the 12-month trial. The data showed that depression, anxiety and loneliness levels were reduced. Also noted was that after participants interacted with their emotional support animals for even just 10 minutes, higher levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin were noted as well as lower amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. While more scientific studies need to be done in this area, we can say for certain that these participants benefited from their animals at a biological level.

The conclusion of this study by its director was, in brief, that when all the data, the interviews and biomarkers were assessed, they saw that emotional support animals may help reduce symptoms and loneliness associated with chronic mental illness.

The Stories

The synergy between a cat and its human(s) is a win-win; the human benefits from the love, loyalty and devotion of the cat and the cat benefits as well from the love and interaction with their human as well as the positive atmosphere of having a forever home.

Unless they can see your emotional need, then your emotional support animal is a ruse

My hope is that this and future scientific research will put to rest some of the push back society seems to have regarding emotional support animals, especially when they are cats. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find many negative comments about the topic of emotional support animals. Much of the criticism comes from the fact that people confuse emotional support and therapy animals. I also think that there is a bit of hubris in the general consensus by some that, unless they can see your emotional need, then your emotional support animal is a ruse.

The after effects of grief, betrayal, fear, depression and other attacks on our emotional wellbeing are not always visible. Many go to work, interact with others and live life in a manner that seems to say, “I’m fine”. Sadly, many of the people we encounter on a daily basis are hanging on by a thin, emotional thread.

Take for instance the veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury from a mortar attack in Iraq and who also suffered from PTSD. Josh Marino couldn’t focus and couldn’t remember how to do things. His condition and his emotional situation worsened. As he tells it, he decided to end his life, wrote a letter and then went out to the yard with his knife to smoke a final cigarette. As he stood in the yard he saw a black and white kitten in the bushes and heard it's plaintive cries as a violent thunderstorm approached. Josh walked over to the kitten to comfort him, his thoughts about suicide interrupted by his thoughts of offering aid to the crying kitten.

Each day Josh took a plate of food outside to feed the kitten and check on it's welfare. He said that thinking of someone other than himself stopped him thinking about his problems. That friendship with the kitten saved his life.

One day the kitten didn’t answer Josh’s call when he took his food outside. Josh thought the kitten was out of his life forever but that didn’t prove to be true. Josh and his girlfriend went to an adopt-a-thon event and as they walked down the rows of cages, a little black and white paw reached out and swatted Josh on the arm. Josh reached inside and picked up the kitten, "his' kitten and the reunion was celebrated by an adoption and naming the kitten the Scout.

Today, he uses his training, as well as his experience to help other veterans.

Josh married and he, his new wife, Scout and his wife’s three cats moved to Pittsburgh. Josh went back to college and earned a degree in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counselling. Today, he uses his training, as well as his experience to help other veterans.

There was a day when Scout became very ill and was diagnosed with FeLV. Josh was told Scout had only a few weeks to live and then one dreaded day, Scout had trouble breathing. Josh said, ““We tried to take him to the vet. I sat in the back seat with him and before we even made it across the bridge he passed away in my arms. It hurt so much.”

Scout provided Josh with emotional support when he needed it most and Josh will always give Scout credit for saving his life.

I don’t know if Josh ever bothered to have his counsellor write a letter to have Scout officially designated an emotional support cat but I think we can all agree that emotional support is exactly what Scout gave to Josh.

Although I am thrilled that science is catching up to the knowledge that we cat owners have had for years, I will never need an official or scientific stamp of approval to proudly proclaim that my cats are emotional support cats.

During the traumatic and devastating period of my life a year and a half ago it took all the strength I had to get out of bed some days. Had it not been for my cats, making biscuits near me, applying purr therapy and refusing to leave my side, my depression would have taken complete hold of me. At a time when I felt I was useless and unloved, my cats reminded me that I was someone, someone who deserved love and care. And they reminded me that they needed my love and care as well. I never called my counsellor to write a letter to make their status as emotional support cats official. I had no need to travel with my felines and, as I own my home, there are no landlord issues but I can assure you if there was any chance that I would have to leave them behind or move because they weren’t allowed, I would have obtained that letter.

The Conclusion

There is always someone waiting in the wings to criticize our affection for our felines, someone who proudly states they don't like cats, that they think cats are aloof and unloving. They make comments like, “Cats are jerks.”, “Cats are not affectionate.”, “Cats could care less about you.”…and the list goes on. Some belittle me for being a cat blogger and writer and laugh when they hear I am also a cat behaviourist. Frankly, I could care less about what these people say. I actually feel sorry for them because to experience the love of a cat is a wonderful thing.

“What greater gift than the love of a cat?” Charles Dickens

Cats are amazing creatures and I'm better for having them in my life. Any time we have access to scientific evidence that proves all the good things we know to be true about cats, I consider it a major step forward.

I am sure that many of you reading this blog post are nodding your heads in agreement and reaching over to pet the cat draped across your keyboard, sharing your chair or commandeering your lap. Here’s to all the emotional support felines in our lives and to the wonderful people who love and care for them!

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