While dogs commonly receive recognition for being service animals and emotional support animals (ESA), cats don’t receive as much attention regarding how much they help humans. Although cats aren’t officially recognized as service animals by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they still help many people as ESAs by providing emotional support.1
If you’re interested in having your cat become an ESA, there are specific steps you need to take. Not everyone can have an emotional support cat, but if you qualify, it may improve your quality of life by helping you cope with mental and emotional challenges.
Before You Start
There are some things that need to be cleared up about emotional support animals. First, ESAs don’t need any specific training or certification to be recognized. Rather, ESAs are a part of someone’s mental health treatment plan. The only way to live with an ESA is to receive an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional.
Therefore, make sure you take some time to evaluate your situation to determine if an ESA would be a suitable fit for you. Many people with debilitating mental and emotional concerns and diagnoses, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD, benefit from ESAs.
Unfortunately, people have tried to abuse the system and take advantage of benefits, such as living with pets in a pet-free apartment building. These cases have made advocating for ESAs more difficult for people that truly need them.
An ESA may be a good addition to the treatment plans of some people living with a significant mental or emotional challenge. If you believe that you or someone you know may benefit from the emotional support that an ESA can provide, make sure to take the proper steps to obtain an ESA letter.
How To Register a Cat as an Emotional Support Animal
1. Schedule an Appointment With a Licensed Mental Health Professional
The first thing you want to do is schedule an appointment with a professional who is licensed and qualified to prescribe an ESA. Here are the main types of professionals who can evaluate you:
To make the process easier, try to schedule an evaluation appointment with someone who has experience or specializes in prescribing ESAs.
Unfortunately, ESA letter scams exist and some websites procure fake letters. To avoid running into a scam, make sure that the licensed mental health professional has a working license that’s valid in your state. You should also have their contact information and be able to easily look up their practice information.
2. Receive an Evaluation
The licensed mental health worker will complete an evaluation to determine if you would benefit from having an ESA as a part of your mental health treatment plan. Be prepared to share information about any mental health diagnoses you’ve received and any treatments or prescriptions you’ve taken.
Although there isn’t a set formula that guarantees that an individual will receive an ESA letter, it’s often easier for individuals to qualify if they have a prior diagnosis of a mental illness.
3. Receive an ESA Letter
If your evaluation deems that you would benefit from the addition of an ESA to your treatment plan, the licensed mental health professional will issue an ESA letter. You can expect to receive a copy of the letter within the next several days of your appointment.
4. Enroll Your Cat in an ESA Registry (Optional)
Once you receive an ESA letter, any pet can become your ESA. So, if you already have a cat as a pet, your cat can become your ESA. You can also adopt a cat and have it become your ESA.
There isn’t an official government ESA registry, and you aren’t obligated to enroll your cat in any registries. However, there are some unofficial ESA organizations that you can join. Some benefits of joining an ESA registry include receiving updates on laws and policies regarding ESAs and getting discounts on pet gear.
5. Renew Your ESA Letter Annually
Although ESA letters don’t expire, landlords and airlines may request a recently issued copy. Therefore, it’s best practice to receive a new copy of an ESA letter every year. You’ll have to be re-evaluated by a licensed mental health professional. If your evaluation shows that you’d still benefit from living with an ESA, you’ll receive a reissued ESA letter with a new date on it.
Do Cats Need Any Training to Become an ESA?
No, cats and other animals don’t need any special training or certification to become an ESA. As long as you have an ESA letter, any cat can become your ESA.
Therapy cats, however, do need to be certified. Therapy pet organizations, such as Pet Partners, have set requirements for therapy cats in order for them to volunteer to help people at various places, such as nursing homes and hospitals.
Some common requirements for therapy cats include not showing aggression towards humans and being able to wear a harness.
However, even therapy cats don’t qualify as service animals. So, they won’t be able to enter pet-free public spaces or travel with you without any additional cost.
How Do Emotional Support Cats Help People?
In general, pets can help improve someone’s mental health by providing companionship, motivation, and structure.
Research has shown that cats can help people struggling with mental health issues. Simply petting a fluffy cat can help lower stress. Cats can also provide a peaceful presence and help people with anxiety calm down.
Can I Board Planes With an Emotional Support Cat?
Very few airlines accommodate ESAs. In the past, many ESAs were treated like service dogs and were able to sit in cabins at no extra cost. However, the US Department of Transportation relaxed its regulations for ESAs in 2021, and airlines can now determine if they would like to board ESAs.
Some airlines still allow ESAs to sit with their owners, but they’ll be charged the same fees as normal pets. If you want to travel with your emotional support cat, make sure to contact the airline before you book a flight to make sure that you can travel with your cat.
Any cat can technically become an emotional support cat as long as you have an ESA letter. So, having a cat become an ESA is worth exploring if you or a loved one is dealing with any mentally or emotionally debilitating conditions.
Featured Image Credit: Yuriy Seleznev, Shutterstock