Welcome to There, I Said It- a column where we give you, the reader, a chance to get something off your chest in an anonymous fashion. Be it embarrassing, frustrating, or just something you didn’t want to admit out loud, it still might make someone else having a bad day feel just a bit better. If you have a story of your own, unburden yourself at TISI@drandyroark.com.
A while ago, I read a story from a veterinarian discussing a client who had come to her clinic with a therapy cat. While the cat was being treated, the client remained on the property and then came onto the porch of the veterinarian’s private home and began smoking. While the veterinarian was understandably upset at the invasion of her private space, it bothered me to see the way the client was presented: “High maintenance.”
A client with a therapy cat very likely has a good reason for needing one, so I wanted to address some preconceived notions from my own perspective, as a client with a therapy cat of their own.
Let me put this in a way that throws the situation in a different light. Would you call a blind woman taking her Seeing Eye animal to the vet high maintenance for wanting to remain with her pet? How about an epileptic man with his seizure dog? No? Then why is it OK to dismiss a mentally ill woman as “high maintenance” for relying on her therapy animal? Why is it OK to pass judgment just because her disability isn’t visible?
Maybe she fled to the “private” area so she wouldn’t be bothered by other clients. Maybe she needed to be alone because she has social anxiety. Maybe she engaged in the comforting ritual of smoking to deal with the stress of being separated from her therapy animal. You can see this woman’s behavior as willfully rude, or you can see a sick person attempting to cope in an unfamiliar environment.
The fact is that therapy animals and service animals are working animals. They have a job to do for their owners. For those of us with mental illnesses, especially anxiety disorders and PTSD, the service animal is often a first line of defense against an unfamiliar environment and potentially triggering stimuli. Even “emotional support animals,” which aren’t technically service animals, provide an emotional touchstone of unconditional love and acceptance (and fluffiness).
So when I read that the woman can’t be separated from her therapy cat, I don’t look down my nose at her. I know the enormous amount of courage it must have taken to go out in public, interact with strange people knowing that they will judge you, and allowing yourself to be separated from the therapy animal that makes you feel safe. For those with anxiety disorders, going out in public can be an exhausting enterprise that may result in panic attacks. This woman put her pet’s needs over her own need for security because she is a good pet owner.
Last year, I got a cat. I thought that having a pet might help me deal with the cocktail of symptoms that is PTSD. Getting a cat is often recommended for PTSD sufferers. Having an animal racing from room to room at 3 in the morning and knocking over things does a lot to desensitize your startle reflex and decrease hypersensitivity. Slowly, the presence of the cat will retrain your brain so that it doesn’t interpret every unfamiliar stimulus as a potential threat.
As the weeks passed, though, I found myself thinking back on what I read more and more. Slowly, my anger was replaced by a creeping sense of guilt. Was I a bad pet owner? Did my depression keep me from giving my cat enough attention? How could I have been arrogant enough to think I could take care of a cat, when I could barely care for myself? What if my mental illness caused me to lose my job—what would happen to my cat? Did I deserve to have a pet? My cat would snuggle up to me, her eyes big and golden and trusting, and I would feel like a fraud.
Well, today is the day I say it: My mental illness does not make me a bad pet owner.
My cat may not be a service animal or a therapy cat, but having a cat motivated me to take better care of myself, to try harder to keep my job, to keep my place clean, to not kill myself. Having something else to care for and love helped me when I was unable to love myself. Getting this cat may have saved my life. Also, there’s no better way to be woken from a night terror than with a concerned wet nose and prickly kneading.
I am a good pet owner. My cat always has healthy food, clean water, a fresh litter box, and enriching toys. I play bird and nature sounds for her on my computer when I’m at work. She is spayed and up to date on all her shots. I use flea prevention. I play with and pet her daily. She does not go outside where she might kill birds or get hit by cars. She loves to be brushed and her favorite treat is tuna flakes. I’m training her to let me brush her teeth.
My rational brain knows I’m a good pet owner, but because of my mental illness, I feel obligated to go the extra mile to prove it. I’m always fighting society’s idea that mental illness makes me a basket case who shouldn’t be trusted with a pet. I’m always fighting the depression’s idea that I’m too worthless to deserve a pet as a companion. Everyone with a mental illness, service animal, or therapy animal is deserving of their vet’s respect. Many people with mental illness struggle with stigma, and I get it: dealing with us can sometimes be frustrating, especially if we need special accommodations and especially when we don’t “look” sick to you.
But please know that you are our pets’ doctors, not ours. You don’t get to judge whether we really need that therapy cat or that service dog. Please bear in mind that we are doing the best we can. Please don’t treat us like aliens who aren’t from this planet, even if you think you have nothing in common with a mentally ill person—because we do have something in common. We all want the best for our pets.