Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘emotional support animals’

Caregiving: What We Owe Our Animals

By fantom_rd / adobestock.com

I’ve written before about emotional support animals and what a difference they can make in the life of a person with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. And that’s still true. Emotional support animals and trained service animals can make a vast difference in helping a neurodivergent person cope with life and their disorder. (A thorough guide to emotional support and service animals can be found here: https://adata.org/guide/service-animals-and-emotional-support-animals.)

It’s unfortunate that misunderstanding and misuse of emotional support and service animals have made it more difficult for persons who really need them to have the comfort and utility of such a companion when they really need it. The fact that pet “vests” labeled Emotional Support Animal are available willy-nilly online is a disgrace. (I saw one site that sold all kinds of vests with assorted patches, ID cards, and collar tags. It had “It is fraudulent to represent your dog as a service animal if it is not” in really small type on only one page.) Real service animals require thorough training and provide specific kinds of support to their humans.

There are many animals that provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support without being official, trained service animals. Cats, for example, are notoriously bad at being able to perform actions such as diverting a person with OCD out of a behavior loop or reminding a person to take medications. Hamsters, rats, and fish, while providing hours of comfort and emotional diversion, are not really qualified as service animals. Monkeys can be officially accepted as service animals, as can pigs and miniature horses. But the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) makes no provision for emotional support sloths, lizards, or rabbits. People who take these animals onto airplanes or into restaurants – or people who take untrained dogs there – screw it up for those who truly have need of nonhuman support.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I want to discuss people with mental illness and what they owe to the animals they live with. Caregiving.

It’s great that animals can act as supportive caregivers to human beings in need, but the animals have needs, too, and it is up to the human being to accommodate them.

Unfortunately, when I had my worst major depressive episode, I was not able to provide proper care for my companion animals. The cats needed regular food and water, a clean litterbox, and appropriate medical care, at a minimum. Fortunately, when I was too ill to provide those, I had a caregiver (my husband) who was. If he had not been available and willing to take over the pet-care duties, they would have been neglected, and suffered for it.

This is not to say that people with mental illnesses should not have pets. Companion animals can be a wonderful solace and comforting presence. My cats’ purring, lap-sitting, and other behaviors have been soothing and peaceful at times when I really needed it. Just their presence could bring me out of myself for a while. Caring for some other being is a powerful adjunct to therapy.

Even persons with severe mental illnesses can benefit from the presence of animals and are able to care for them, sometimes even better than they can care for themselves. Think of the homeless veteran with PTSD who cares for a companion dog, making sure it eats even if he doesn’t, and finding it shelter from the cold. It’s hard to say which is doing more for the other. And people with depression, for example, may find that caring for an animal brings them out of themselves, at least a little, and connects them with a world wider than the inside of their head.

What I am saying is that people who know they may be incapacitated by their mental illnesses probably should make preparations for a time when they are not able to care adequately for their animal companions. I was lucky to have a caregiver who was as emotionally invested in caring for the cats as I was. He took over the caregiving for them as well as for me.

It is, however, only sensible to make plans for your animal companions if you know you may be unable to give them proper care – for example, if you know you are facing hospitalization. Pet-sitting or boarding arrangements can be made in advance and called upon in case of emergency. Even a pet feeding and watering station that provides several days’ worth of sustenance can make owning a pet more practical when your coping skills disintegrate.

I wouldn’t give up my cats for anything. Unless giving them up was the only way to ensure that they received proper care. No animal should suffer just because I do.

My Emotional Support Animals

As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.

The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time. 

He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.

It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight. 

But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.

Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.

Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.

Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.

In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.

Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.

 

Furry Friends and Helpers

I’m sure we’ve all seen memes that say the best therapist has four legs and fur. When I’ve been feeling cranky, I have occasionally written responses to the people who post them. They demean the very hard and real work that psychiatric and psychological professionals do. And after all, what do the memes really say? “Have a mental illness? Just get a dog.”

Still, there are circumstances in which an animal can help a person with a mental or emotional disorder. It’s not as simple as going to the pound and picking out a pup, though. For an animal to assist a psychiatric (or other) patient, there are a number of hoops for the person to jump through.

Most people nowadays are used to the presence – or at least the idea – of service animals such as seeing eye dogs. Less common are Therapy Animals, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Psychiatric Service Animals (PSAs). But they all have parts to play in promoting and maintaining mental health in persons with bipolar and other emotional disorders.

Therapy animals are most often used with geriatric patients and children with emotional disturbances. In some nursing homes and convalescent centers you find programs that bring small animals to interact with the residents. Even farm animals – chickens, lambs, piglets – may spark memories that had been hidden away for years. The animals help residents get in touch with those memories and caregivers get in touch with residents. Libraries sometimes bring calm, well-behaved dogs in so that children can read to them. The soothing presence of a well-trained dog can help a child self-regulate her or his emotions – and get reading practice at the same time.

Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as miniature horses or guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder. Typically, in order for an emotional support animal to be allowed in rental housing, documentation such as a letter is required from a physician or mental health professional stating that the animal’s presence alleviates symptoms of a patient’s psychiatric condition – one that qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Regulations covering comfort or emotional support animals apply mostly to residences and airlines, but not other places where service animals are allowed, such as stores, restaurants, and public buildings. There, health codes trump emotional support.

Some folks confuse Emotional Support Animals with Psychiatric Service Animals. They think that “training” a dog to offer a kiss on command, or jump in their lap, or be hugged is a task qualifying the animal as an official service animal. While these are indeed ways that an animal can calm a person in distress, service animals, including psychiatric service animals, must receive special training that teaches them how to alleviate the symptoms of an ADA-defined disability.

Legitimate tasks for PSDs (psychiatric service dogs) include counterbalance/bracing for a handler dizzy from medication, waking the handler at the sound of an alarm when the handler is heavily medicated and sleeps through alarms, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger (i.e., traffic), leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place, and so on.

In The Possibility Dogs: What I Learned from Second-Chance Rescues About Service, Hope, and Healing, author Susannah Charleson recounts how rescue dogs – the unwanted, unlikely-to-be-adopted dogs that languish in shelters or are destroyed – have been matched with persons who need them.

One of the stories she tells involves training a dog to help a person with OCD. The dog was taught to identify when the handler had returned to the stove three times (to check the burners). Then the dog would interrupt the person, leaning against her leg to distract her. For a person who could approach a door but not go outside, the dog brought a leash to encourage leaving the house for a fun activity.

By the way, forget about cats as service animals. Just try training a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. (I know that cats have been trained to run obstacle courses for agility competitions, but that doesn’t really qualify as a service for an individual with a disability.) If you are able to register your cat as an Emotional Support Animal or get a medical/psychiatric recommendation, you may be able to have your cat live with you in a pet-free community, or have the fee for a pet waived. But that’s about it where cats are concerned.

So, animals can’t be actual therapists, but they can assist in treatment and life skills for people who need help with mental disorders. When I’m less cranky, I keep scrolling past the pet-as-therapist memes and feel grateful that my cats offer me emotional support, whether they’re trained to do so or not.

 

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