The decision to get a qualified emotional support or psychiatric service dog is a big one! There are a LOT of questions and considerations. One of the most prominent is where you should go to find your new cat or dog. It can be tricky deciding whether to rescue locally or purchase from a breeder. I wouldn’t label myself an expert on the matter, but I faced this predicament not too long ago. I learned some vital information on the journey to find my dog Enzo. Sharing is caring, and I care a lot about ESA and PSA education. So without further ado, here is my best step-by-step advice on where to find your support animal.
STEP 1: DETERMINE WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
Technically, any animal can be an Emotional Support Animal. Truthfully, not all are born to be. Supportiveness isn’t generally a learned attribute. You can train an animal to sit and stay but “offer me gentle reassurance” isn’t exactly a practical command. You should recognize that appropriate expectations are key to finding the right match. The role of your ESA will be significantly impacted by the specific mental health condition you deal with.
For example, in my situation, anxiety threatens to take over each morning. From the moment I open my eyes, my mind floods with a laundry list of concerns and stressors. Due to this, I knew my ESA would need to be an animal with innate calming abilities. I mean, let’s face it, a yippy chihuahua hopping across the bed (while probably adorable) is NOT going to soothe the nerves. I contemplated this in advance and now awake to a fluffy Goldendoodle nuzzling against my pillow. I personally find this tender reminder of companionship a helpful encouragement to face the day. Everyone has different needs, which is why I highly recommended doing front-end research on animal breeds and temperaments. You should cross-reference your findings with the mental health challenges you face, and make a list of the best breeds for your scenario.
Shelters are not always certain of each animal’s genetic makeup, and this can make the process complicated. It’s a great idea to check local rescue websites for their available animal bios. The Humane Society reports that 25% of shelter dogs are purebreds, so no matter what you’re looking for, you may be pleasantly amazed at what you find! Since the bulk of cats are mixed breeds, individual personality is paramount if you prefer a feline. Trial adoptions are often desirable because temporarily taking in an animal can help you gauge their demeanor. Please remember, however, that there are no long-term guarantees. Sometimes unwanted behaviors suddenly appear (or get worse) once an animal is more comfortable in their surroundings. On the other hand, sometimes they get better!
Statistics show that one in ten pets adopted from a shelter is no longer in their adoptive home six months later. This breaks my heart. Incompatibility is never the goal when looking for an ESA, so be realistic and as mindful as possible.
STEP 2: CONSIDER THE UNKNOWNS
No matter where you find your new ESA, you are bound to be met with unforeseen challenges. Nobody can fully predict the future physical or mental health of an animal. While this is true, you shouldn’t enter the relationship with a Star-Trek mentality either. “To go where no man has gone before” is probably not the wisest mantra.
It might be surprising, but purebred animals are at greater risk of physical health troubles than mixed breeds are. More genetic diversity leads to less genome error. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that rescue animals have more mental health issues. Typically, animals who end up in a shelter have complicated pasts that landed them there. Both physical and mental health struggles can cause extra stress for owners and pets.
My pup is a multigenerational Goldendoodle and was purchased from a good friend of the family. We were well aware of his doggo parent’s genetic and behavioral history before we took him home. Even so, I was unprepared to discover that he has a strange affinity for eating things. Enzo eats EVERYTHING, and I’m not just talking food. He eats socks, toddler matchbox cars, mulch, flowers, and paper towels. We have spoken to our vet, but she can’t seem to decide what the issue is. We do our best daily to be aware and observe his behaviors, but sometimes he still eats the things. As I mentioned, I suffer from chronic anxiety. Added paranoia about Enzo choking on inanimate objects isn’t the greatest, but if I could do it over again, I’d still choose my sweet boy. Even so, it’s a great example of not being able to predict everything that’s up ahead.
Usually, dogs and cats from shelters have more significant concerns. Like people, animals are emotionally sensitive, and traumatic experiences can cause permanent scars that may be difficult to overcome. The effects of abandonment or abuse will take some time to work through. For example, my sister’s kitty is a rescue. He’s the most loyal cat you will ever find, but he also has some dramatic quirks. His previous owner left him alone in a single apartment room for a long while. He had been locked away without love or provision. To this day, he freaks out if my sister closes the door to any room in which he resides. His fear of not having food, water, or escape is immense.
If you aren’t sure that you have the mental bandwidth to assist your animal before they assist you, a rescue may not be the route to take.
STEP 3: ACKNOWLEDGE THE POSITIVES
Steps 1 and 2 are pretty serious points. Don’t let that scare you away. Owning an ESA is a wonderful thing for so many (including me). Even if the animal you choose comes with difficulties, that doesn’t mean the companionship is a flop. None of us are perfect, and sometimes our flaws can even be unifying. Did you know that emotions are contagious? It’s true, they are! Joy, serenity, confidence, and hopefulness are all emotions that many animals naturally emit. Ok, maybe not EXACTLY, but let me explain.
The pure joy that Enzo’s wiggly butt exhibits when I rattle a bag of treatos in front of him makes me laugh every single time. The ease in which he falls asleep on my lap induces a sense of serenity even on the most hectic of afternoons. He is keenly alert on days when my tears won’t stop flowing and offers extra licks, hugs, and silly antics to lift my mood. There are also days he seems less enthused. Now and then, he will lay around in a lazy, depressed sort of way. That sounds bad, but it’s actually not. I find myself empathizing with the emotions I perceive him displaying during those times. My sister says the exact same thing about her cat, Fenway. When he’s scared it reminds her that we all go through things, humans and animals alike.
One stand-out positive of rescuing an animal is the deep satisfaction of knowing that you saved an innocent life from ending. Each year, about 6.5 million cats and dogs wind up in shelters across the nation. That number is astounding. Purebreds will almost always find a fur-ever home but far too many animals are euthanized because of rescue stigmas and hesitations. Rescue animals might require extra attention, but all new ESAs will require some degree of patience. Try to remember that, over time, the bond you establish will make the “work” far less noticeable.
Having an optimistic outlook can help us approach life with an open mind. Having someone by your side, with no judgment (no matter what), is the most incredible feeling in the world. Animals aren’t biased like people. As long as you provide love, they will always return it.
STEP 4: BE AWARE OF YOUR BUDGET
It’s no secret that breeders charge quite a bit for their animals. If you are hard-pressed for initial funds, you can usually adopt a furry friend at a shelter for much less. Keep in mind, however, the costs of bringing a cat or dog into your home go far beyond any primary payment.
Make sure you consider ALL of the expenses you will face with ESA ownership. You should think about things like food, supplies (bowls, bed/crate, leashes, tags, toys, brush, etc), vaccinations, and other veterinary care. It can add up pretty quickly! Shelters are known to cover first shots, a wellness exam, beginning flea/tick/heart-worm treatments, and spay or neuter surgery. That’s a fairly large up-front saving in addition to the low adoption fees. Though breeders don’t offer much beyond a few puppy inoculations, the trade-off is accurately reflected in the specific pedigree characteristics of your choice. This assurance is well worth the funds for those who can afford it.
You can’t put a price on the amazing benefits of an Emotional Support Animal. Still, your bank account needs to be prepared to handle it. I recommend starting a small fund and adding money monthly, or as you’re able. Saving in advance makes things a lot easier with ANY major life event. Financial shock can lead to poor health, and that would be counter-intuitive! Make ready your wallet and make room in your heart because both are equally important.
STEP 5: GET YOUR ESA LETTER
Once you’re together, being apart won’t be an option you’re willing to accept. Experiencing hassle-free housing and travel with your Emotional Support Animal requires an ESA letter. If you don’t have one already, visit AmericanServicePets.com for more information.