Midway through my sophomore year at Eastern Michigan University, I found myself facing some pretty drastic familial issues that resulted in me nearly dropping out for a semester, potentially longer. Instead, I was able to work out a pretty fantastic middle ground, which was to drop a few classes and make a very special addition- my emotional support cat and best friend, Athena.
It didn't take long for Athena to make herself at home in my dorm, and my roommates took to her immediately. Having been around cats my whole life (including many years of fostering,) it soon became obvious that Athena was just what I needed. My fostering instincts kicked in, and pretty soon I was able to get out of bed again in order to care for her, which led to me being able to take care of myself, as well. It was a solid deal- one that helped me get through the hardest year of my life.
Word about my emotional support animal soon spread throughout my dorm, leading to a few unwelcome encounters. I can't tell you the number of times I was approached by people asking to visit Athena- sometimes by people I didn't even know. As an avid animal lover, I get it. College tends to have a shortage of cuddly friends, and perhaps if I hadn't come to own an emotional support animal of my own, I would have made the same request. What I came to learn, however, is that there seems to be a general misunderstanding of what an emotional support animal is.
Athena is not my pet. Now, this may seem harsh, but I assure you it isn't. In fact, it's the opposite! Athena is much more than my pet- she's my best friend, and is often what I lovingly refer to as "my furry therapist." If you've ever gone through a severe period of depression, you may understand what I'm talking about when I say that, for a long while, I was too emotionally drained to do the basics, including even getting out of bed.
It was Athena's meows that eventually gave me a reason to get up, and thus make the first (and often hardest) push of the day. And at the end of the day, when I would toss and turn and cry, it was her purrs that helped me to fall asleep. So, though it may seem silly, there is truth to me saying that she is as much my caretaker as I am hers.
Now- onto the part about not petting her.
For a little while, I was open to the idea of others entering my dorm room to come play with Athena. I'd love to say that basic respect was always shown to Athena and me, but I'd be lying. Not only was Athena often subjected to unwanted hugs, kisses, tugs, and pokes, but she also became an "outlet" for some.
I realized that some people began to ask to visit her with the expectation that I would say yes- that she was as much their support cat as she is mine. This, of course, took a toll on both of us, me to the point of avoiding others and her to the point of getting stressed and having hairballs or throwing up after an especially long visit. Neither of us was happy.
When I say that Athena is not my "pet," and when I say that you cannot "pet" her, I do it not out of spite or jealousy, but with the realization that there are many people who do not understand just what an emotional support animal is.
All animals deserve our respect and understanding, but this especially applies to ones like Athena, who have done so much for their owners. You never know just how much an owner can rely on their ESA, and mistreating or hogging it can be draining and upsetting for both parties.
So please- the next time you come across an emotional support animal, think twice before treating it like any other pet. These guys are often working hard to keep their owners going, and sometimes both they and their owners need a little bit of space.