Can I/should I get a "prescription cat?"
August 28, 2012 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Getting a prescription cat... How to, should I, and can I?

Please don't flagellate me, I'm truly not trying to abuse any systems here--I just learned of this possibility and am trying to figure out if it's something for me. I have a history of depression and anxiety, am currently in treatment for a compulsive eating disorder which is definitely related to anxiety. I moved to San Francisco less than a year ago and am currently living in an apartment that allows no pets at all. Reading AskMe for other cat-related things, I saw mention of doctors "prescribing" cats. When I've cohabited with cats in the past, my anxiety has been noticeably better/more manageable, as has my depression (which now seems to be dysthymia, and I'm coping... okay). I'm an excellent pet owner/foster cat owner, and their presence benefits me significantly. From what little I know, it seems like a therapy cat might be an option?

So: is this something I should look into? I really don't want to misuse a system that's set up for folks who are much worse off than me, but I do struggle with some mental health issues and I do know that cats have a history of helping. Are my issues too trivial? I imagine cats make everybody feel better, so perhaps this is a silly idea.

If this is a) a real thing which b) I can use without moral qualms or taking advantage of a system that's intended for other purposes (therapy dogs, etc.), how does it work? Do I just talk to my regular eating disorder psychiatrist? Are my landlords obligated to accept a therapy cat? Does the cat need to be in some way exceptional/trained to qualify as such? Would future stigma about therapy animals make it less likely for me to find a place in SF's insane housing market, or would having taken this action negatively affect me in other ways I haven't thought of (some nightmarish insurance company issue, etc.)? This is far, far down the line, but I'm a good pet owner and the difference I noticed when I've had a cat was palpable.

Again, I'm not trying to be a jerk or take advantage of the system, but I don't feel like I have a sense of perspective about when therapy animals are appropriate.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why not try to find another apartment that allows pets?
posted by xingcat at 7:28 AM on August 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

It sounds like you just need a way to get around your landlord's restrictions on pets. I'm not a lawyer, but there are almost certainly laws in place that allow for service animals, which this particular cat would be. If you think having the written advice of a medical professional is going to help you navigate things with your landlord, then you should do it--your psychiatrist could probably make this happen, or could point you at someone who could. Once you have gotten past your landlord, you should stop thinking of your cat as a prescription, because it is not a drug, it is a cat.

After that? Hooray, you will have a cat! And there is no possible chance that this will ever hurt your standing in the housing market.
posted by Mayor West at 7:38 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've had a number of pet rabbits in my life and they can be liter box trained and very cuddly. Maybe find out if your landlords would accept a smaller pet than a cat? There's usually tons of rabbits at animal shelters.
posted by jabes at 7:39 AM on August 28, 2012

There are many studies that show pets can improve outcomes in people that are dealing with mental health issues. If it helps you, why wouldn't you?
posted by Silvertree at 7:39 AM on August 28, 2012

I think you're overthinking this.

You should be going to a mental health professional right now for your anxiety/depression issues. Said professional should be discussing therapy options, medication options, alternative options, or some combination of the above. When said professional brings up options, consider asking about therapy pets. The professional will not look at you oddly, will not judge you, and will not chastise you. If the professional does, get a new professional.. The professional may or may not indicate that a therapy pet is appropriate for you. If the professional indicates a therapy pet is appropriate, ask for a prescription or letter to your landlord indicating the therapy pet is needed for your anxiety/depression. It would be helpful if you and the professional are knowledgeable about the laws regarding therapy animals, since the ADA (and other laws) require your landlord to allow pets if they are needed for your treatment, even if the place has a "no pets" policy.

The system is not designed for people "worse off" than you. If the medical professional doesn't think a therapy animal would be appropriate, the medical professional won't suggest getting one, and you will not be able to use the ADA to force your landlord to allow a therapy animal. In that case, you can simply find a landlord that allows pets (they do exist, even in SF), and get a pet yourself. You do not need a reason/excuse to get a cat, just a willingness and ability to take care of it, which it sounds like you do. Further, as others have correctly indicated, this will not change anything about your value as a tenant, and I would be extremely surprised if it was even mentioned unless your pet was rabid/insane/aggressive (things cats tend not to be). Most importantly, if a potential landlord used your medical health care as a reason to deny you tenancy, you don't want to live with that landlord.
posted by saeculorum at 7:44 AM on August 28, 2012 [13 favorites]

I really think the easiest thing to do is to move to a place where you can adopt a cat. I don't know much about this but I do believe that therapy cats are usually specially qualified as they require personality characteristics that may not be innate to all cats (like being calm in certain situations), so your landlord would not have to accept a cat that you adopted otherwise. The only place I've seen therapy cats are in schools and nursing homes, so I'm not sure how it'd work in a rental if say, one of the other tenants was allergic or if you were on a lease with a firm expiration date.

I have a cat and yes, having a pet has helped with my anxiety and depression. It's not a cure-all, of course, but I think therapy cats are a kind of complicated option. Do you have a therapist that you can consult about this?
posted by sm1tten at 7:44 AM on August 28, 2012

Yes, this happens; the landlord has to let you have a support animal if it would be a reasonable accomodation under the ADA. People with disabilities don't have to move to different apartments. Check out this PDF from the City of San Francisco about service and support animals for more information. (Of course, I can't tell you whether you, personally, are entitled to have a support cat).
posted by jgfoot at 7:46 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

the landlord has to let you have a support animal if it would be a reasonable accomodation under the ADA

Actually, the ADA generally applies to service animals in public, not support animals in private homes. Support animals are covered under the Fair Housing Act.

In this case, in order to have a legal entitlement to keep the cat despite a no-pets policy, the OP is going to need documentation from the mental health worker stating that the pet mitigates at least one factor of her disability. The OP needs demonstrate a relationship between his or her ability to function and the companionship of the animal. Self-diagnosis is not sufficient.

posted by Tanizaki at 7:59 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think saeculorum's answer really covers it.

I'll add that when a person (your landlord) is legally required to allow something (pets) that they normally would not, they don't tend to be gracious about it. Try to be as polite as possible, find out what aspects of pet ownership upset the landlord most (smells, claw damage, noise) and respond with understanding and something that you will do to make sure that your legally-allowed cat does not become the landlord's worst nightmare (enzyme treat stains immediately, buy scratching posts, vacuum frequently, etc). Be prepared for this landlord-tenant relationship to fail, and be prepared to look for a pet-friendly apartment when your lease is up. With any luck, this won't translate into fighting over your security deposit. Just because something is legal (having a therapy cat) or illegal (faking reasons to withold a security deposit) in your favor doesn't mean you want to tangle with hiring lawyers to get your rights. Trying to maintain a good working relationship with your landlord by talking and making a few compromise-gestures might guard against the need for lawyers.
posted by aimedwander at 8:13 AM on August 28, 2012

I think some people may be missing the San Francisco-specific nuances of this question. You shouldn't have to move to get a cat, if you need one for your mental health. Finding another apartment is not exactly a trivial endeavor in this rental market. And San Francisco has a number of policies in place to support people with service and support animals that other places may not have.

This page from PAWS has a lot of useful information.

Specific information about housing.

Here is what they say you need from your clinician:
"In order to prove that a dog is a service or support animal, you may be asked to have documentation from a licensed professional (doctor, nurse practitioner, psychiatrist, other mental-health professional or social worker) stating that the animal is an essential part of treatment for a disability. A doctor’s letter must have two essential components.
1. It must state that you have a disability. The disability does not need to be identified.
2. It must state that it is the professional opinion of the provider that is it essential for you to have a service/support animal.

Regardless of whether you are asked to show a doctors letter, it is very helpful to have one on file just in case. "

Their sample letter.

You and your health professionals should make the decision about whether this would be good for your mental health to have a support animal. But you wouldn't be taking advantage of a system -- that is why San Francisco has the policies that it does. I would encourage you to call the folks at PAWS and talk to them about it if you have questions, even if you wouldn't qualify for their programs.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:03 AM on August 28, 2012 [12 favorites]

gingerbeer: I'm confused here - there is nothing legally specific to San Francisco about this question since support animals are required to be accommodated anywhere in the United States per FHA/ADA. Similarly, the suggestions to find another apartment due to other tenants' potential allergies are just as true in San Francisco as they are in any other city. What's specific about San Francisco?
posted by saeculorum at 9:08 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The rental market is specific to SF. Some places, finding a comparable apartment and moving is trivial. Some places, like SF, it is both a major expense and an arduous process.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:21 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Telling someone to simply find a landlord that takes cats, in San Francisco's rental market, is, well, missing the context. And I say that as someone who has had cats, with or without the landlord's permission, in every apartment I've lived in in SF.

San Francisco also takes a broader view of service animals than the ADA.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:32 AM on August 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

What you're talking about is an emotional support animal, which is slightly different than a service animal. It might help you find relevant materials to search with that particular term. Service animals (including psychiatric service animals) have to be trained to perform some task for the disabled person. Emotional support animals do not have to be trained to do anything. The distinction isn't really important if you don't want to take your animal out of your home, but just fyi, service animals are covered by the ADA, but emotional support animals are not. Emotional support animals are covered by the FHA. The Bazelon Center fact sheet linked by saeculorum is really all you need.

Talk to your treatment provider about whether they think you would benefit from an emotional support animal, and please don't feel like it's inappropriate for you to get one if you need it. As for getting one in your current apt or moving, it is your right to a reasonable accommodation if you qualify for it. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty for asserting your rights. You should be prepared for the possibility that your landlord could react badly. It certainly happens. I always suggest that people start out nice when making these requests.
posted by Mavri at 9:37 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

What is the law in SF? I recently found out that in Toronto, Canada, landlords can put "no pets" clauses in leases, but they cannot evict you if you break the clause. They can deny you an apartment if you have a pet (because they don't have to say why), but they can't evict you for lying about having a pet. Basically, if you live in a private apartment (not shared with the landlord), you can have a pet whether they like it or not.

But not many people - including me, until last week - know this. Landlords might not even know this (or don't want to know it), but you can get legal aid support.
posted by jb at 10:07 AM on August 28, 2012

"would having taken this action negatively affect me in other ways I haven't thought of"

You risk losing a future reference should you decide to move.

I am also disabled, and so far, I have discovered that for individual matters, the ADA is mostly a bunch of handwaving short of hiring an expensive lawyer. It may leverage a cat into your apartment, but it won't prevent problems from arising thereafter.
posted by Ardiril at 10:33 AM on August 28, 2012

I'm not an expert, but we did a fair amount of research on the topic of tenant's rights in SF when we were house shopping a couple of years ago (we were considering a place with an income unit).

Your landlord would be obligated to accept the cat if it is an emotional support/therapy animal. Further, your landlord will have a very hard time getting rid of you once you "officially" have a disability, even when your lease is up, no matter what you do. Not that it would be a pleasant place to live if he/she is actively trying to evict you, but you would be able to stay. Although it's technically illegal for your landlord to harass you into moving, they can do a LOT to make your life unpleasant if they choose to do so before it crosses into harassment.

If it were me, I'd start by talking to my mental health professional(s) about the idea. If they think it's a good idea, start looking for a place that will allow a cat AND talk to your landlord. Your landlord will be a lot more receptive if you aren't a dick about it. Approach it as "this is something I'm considering for my health" not "I know my rights." If you do decide to go ahead with the cat, be prepared for a very poor relationship with your landlord moving forward (one of the reasons you should look for a place that will allow the cat).

Regarding the future, you will probably have a harder time finding an apartment that isn't pet-friendly. The rental market is SO competitive right now. No landlord puts a place on the market saying "no pets" hoping to take on a tenant with a service animal.
posted by tealcake at 11:39 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm confused here - there is nothing legally specific to San Francisco about this question since support animals are required to be accommodated anywhere in the United States per FHA/ADA.

This absolutely is geographically specific, and service animals are not required to be accommodated anywhere under federal law. (My wife used to be the executive director of a non-profit that raised, trained, and placed service dogs, and is an expert on the topic.)

For starters, the ADA only recognizes service dogs, not anti-depression cats. Also, the ADA only provides people with service dogs the right to take them into government facilities. That's it. It's up to each state to pass laws that go farther than that, should they care to. For instance, here in Virginia, § 51.5-44 allows service dogs on public transportation, in restaurants, hotels, schools, or any place where the public is generally permitted access. Lacking that law, no such right would exist. The law is silent on landlords, which is to say that, by default, a landlord is free to refuse to rent to somebody with a service animal.

There's a really significant problem in the world of service animals, which is that few states (none?) have any standards for what constitutes a service animal. So if California (or San Francisco) allows service cats—which are hugely rare—they're unlikely to establish what qualifies a cat as a service cat. The result of this is that any jackass can make up "service dog" vests, stick them on their teacup poodle, and declare that their dog can go where they go. And the result of that is that business owners and landlords stop taking seriously the notion of service animals. (See Rebecca Skloot's 2008 story about service ponies and service parrots.)

So, to the OP, I want to reiterate what others have said: it's California and San Francisco law that matters. The ADA doesn't matter.
posted by waldo at 8:06 PM on August 28, 2012

The Fair Housing Act, a federal law, also matters, and it absolutely requires landlords to accept service animals and emotional support animals.
posted by Mavri at 8:22 PM on August 28, 2012

The Fair Housing Act, a federal law, also matters, and it absolutely requires landlords to accept service animals and emotional support animals.

In theory, sure! In practice, it is far from "absolute." Some types of landlords are exempt (e.g., churches, small apartment complexes that the landlord lives in, people who own just a few single-family homes), some types of housing are exempt, landlords can refuse certain breeds, the track record of applying FHA (and section 504 of the Rehab Act) to emotional support animals (ESAs) isn't great, landlords are free to demand evidence that the animal has received rigorous training, landlords can even require that the tenant see a doctor of the landlord's choosing to confirm that the tenant requires that service animal. If OP was physically disabled and had a trained service dog, he'd have a strong case on his hands, and he'd be wise to talk to a lawyer. But an ESA cat is a tough sell, and a landlord looking for a reason to say "no" wouldn't have to look very hard.

It's way, way easier to just rent from somebody who simply allows pets. In the case of the OP, it'd be best to have a chat with his landlord.
posted by waldo at 8:54 PM on August 28, 2012

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