i had been hearing about support animals long before i was diagnosed, so naturally i decided after learning of my MS, i was ready to get my very own. i scoured the internet trying to find information on how to go about the process and i found nothing that laid out step-by-step how to get a support animal.
having gone through it, i would like to pass on what i learned so that others out there who are like me, wringing thier hands in anxiety wanting a support animal so badly but not sure how to start can learn and develop the cajones to go through with this. its easier than you think!
when thinking about what guidelines would have been helpful to me, this is what i came up with:
1. Know and understand the laws
you have to start with doing your research. know what having a support animal means for you and those around you. know when your landlord can say no or ask your animal to leave. it is vital that you have a clear picture of what is and is not legal for you to do. support animals are very different than service animals. while the two are often lumped together when discussing ADA law, you can get into very big trouble for misrepresenting your animal.
support animals are protected by ADA law for individuals who have a psychiatric or physical limitation that interferes with a major life function. and this ADA law only allows you to keep your animal on your home premises with you. it does NOT allow you to take your dog to a restaurant or into the grocery store, or in general let you bring your dog out to public places that an animal would normally not be allowed to enter. ADA law also governs what types of animals you are allowed to keep as a support animal and these differ from what is allowed for a service animal, and you should familiarize yourself with these distinctions. which brings me to my next point…
2. research the animal you are interested in getting
this point is really no different for a person getting a support animal than it is for any other person looking to bring an animal into their lives. you MUST do the research. know your personal limits. if you have mobility or endurance difficulties, then getting a rambunctious lab puppy that requires 2 hour walks and daily trips to the dog park is probably not the best choice. your support animal will still require care and upkeep. are you sure you can provide it?
ADA law does not make your support animal untouchable. if you are a careless caretaker there are grounds for your support animal to be asked to leave the premises. in order to keep your landlord from invoking his/her rights within the law, you must make sure that your physical or psychological conditions do not prevent you from providing appropriate care for the animal that you would like to have. the best way to do this is to really understand what your animal requires for care. research, research, research!
additionally, before you bring an animal home, it might be wise especially if you are a first time owner to get firsthand experience with caring for animals. a good way to do this is to volunteer at a shelter. shelters take in the full spectrum of companion animals from chickens and guinea pigs to dogs and cats so you will get to see a full range of breeds and temperaments to find out what works best for you, and maybe even find your support animal in the process!
in summary, your first responsibility is to be a good caretaker of your animal. the best start to this is to understand the needs of your animal. research what the animal you are considering requires and know if you have the ability and the resources to provide the care they need. this is true for all people looking to care for an animal, but this is of even greater importance for someone looking to get a support animal. having a support animal is not a get out of jail free card. it does not excuse us from being responsible with our animals nor make us above the law, it in fact makes us more accountable to the people around us.
trust me, there will be people who will think you are playing the system. and there will be others who dislike the fact that you have a support animal and will do everything in thier power to ruin it for you. without a thorough understanding of how the laws protect you and your animal, you run into the possibility of making a mistake that can lead to your support animal being asked to leave the premises.
so do your research while you wait for part 2 🙂