welcome back to support animal 101, i trust you have all faithfully and thoroughly researched all aspects of caring for your future support animal and have a good understanding of the laws that pertain to support animals. i say good because, well, those documents are boring, long, and written for robots. which brings us to our next step in bringing home your support animal:
3. develop your plan of attack
when i was trying to get my support animal, i was reading department of justice documents that left my head spinning. while it was clear that i had a right to the keep an animal, i had no idea how to actually get the animal. i really needed some additional guidance from organizations who were more familiar with interpreting ADA law than i was. i reached out to a non-profit called Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) who also referred me to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to help this process.
reaching out was helpful because it helped me understand the laws a bit better, and it helped me develop the best strategy for my situation. these organizations may or may not be helpful to you (in fact, the person i contacted at PAWS was let go shortly thereafter due to budget cuts and they no longer have someone who is able to help with support animal issues) my point here is to reach out. start searching around for organizations who do advocacy for individuals with disabilities. send out emails asking for contacts. ask at your local shelter if they know the process.
in my case (and i can only speak for myself as different cities and states are going to have different laws) the process went something like this:
- signed note from the doctor stating the medical need for my animal
- acquire the animal
- complete all necessary city ordinance laws for vaccinations and spay/neuter
- present qualifying documents to the city shelter and pay a fee for assistance animal tags
- notify landlord of support animal and intent to bring home
i would bet that while you may not do things in the exact order that i did, you will still end up doing roughly the same steps. let’s go through each one:
1. doctor’s note
this note is a prescription for your support animal. it should state a clear need for the animal as a necessary part of your treatment. it should state exactly what the animal does to treat your disability, and this disability should be stated in a way that shows it interferes with a major life function. when (not if! positive thinking, folks) you get it signed have the doctor print it on their letterhead.
asking my doctor was a HUGE source of anxiety for me. i was really scared of hearing no and i was already feeling so down because of my diagnosis, i knew i would take hearing no pretty hard. so i went ahead and wrote the note myself. i knew from past experiences with doctors and filling out forms and writing letters that they don’t like doing it. and besides, i had the most at stake here. it wasn’t a huge concern of theirs to write a compelling note. so i drafted up a letter for my neurologist and presented it to her. she read it over, thanked me for writing it and signed it. my heart was literally pounding out of my chest and i had already planned out my rebuttal before even getting to her office, and within 30 seconds the moment i had literally built up for months in my head was over and i had my note.
M has been under my care for Multiple Sclerosis since her diagnosis in September 2011. This condition has produced disability in terms of walking tolerance and fatigue. For these symptoms, M derives a great deal of comfort and support from her dog, Birdie. M has cared for Birdie for six months and is extremely bonded to her.
It is my professional opinion that the ability for M to continue caring for her dog is an important aspect in maintaining her health and well being. Birdie provides M with service and assistance directly related to her disability in the form of encouraging gentle daily exercise which ameliorates fatigue, and helps maintain her current walking tolerance to avoid future decline from de-conditioning.
If you have any questions feel free to contact me at:
Dr. ___________, M.D.
it is not required to state your medical condition, but if you are willing to disclose, then i think it can help give the reader perspective–they may know someone who has the same illness that you do and having the ability to empathize with your struggles will make your letter more compelling and persuasive.
2. acquiring the animal
at this point, you should be familiar with ADA law and know what type of animal you would like to have as your support animal. if you are trying to adopt a shelter pet as your support animal you may have to speak with your landlord first to get permission for the animal to come home. most shelters (but not all) will require contact with your landlord to see if pets are allowed at your home. this is another reason why volunteering at the shelter might be beneficial. it allows you a chance to make personal relationships with the very people who could be adopting your support animal to you. while it may not be possible to adopt an animal to you until they speak with your landlord, if you have one in mind they might work with you on getting the animal home. or they may become your allies if you are having problems with your landlord.
you’ll notice that we acquired the animal and got all of the necessary paperwork, vaccinations, tags, etc. done *before* we brought her home. in our case, we had friends close by who were willing to look after her while we got everything sorted out. this took us about 5 days. we did it this way because we wanted to do everything up front and knew there was no way we could hide a 50lb pit bull until all of our to-do boxes had been checked off.
3. City ordinances for your support animal
where i live vaccinations and spay/neuter are required, and in order to keep birdie as my support animal i was required to prove that these things happened. i had to bring supporting paperwork to the animal shelter. i also filled out some documents and showed the letter from my neurologist to get her assistance dog tags. check with your city animal shelter to see what they require for this.
4. notify landlord of support animal and intent to bring home
ok, this is a big one. i’ll tell you what we did. first, when my partner and i were looking for a place, we searched for one with a landlord we liked. we figured that in general this was a good strategy to ensure that our living situation was pleasant, regardless of the support animal. but we were also keeping in mind that a support animal was in the works for us when looking for a place.
once we were in our place we used a variety of tactics to make the transition smooth. we waited a few months so that our landlord could get to know us before we asked for the support animal. in order to build a good relationship with our new landlord we made sure to pay our rent on time every month, and in general did our best to be friendly, easy to manage tenants. if your building has noise ordinances, follow them. don’t be the squeaky wheel. and if you have an opportunity to say “good afternoon” to another tenant in the building or your landlord, always take it. you really want to build personal relationships with those in your building and with your landlord. trust me, not everyone will be understanding or welcoming of your animal. the best way to keep things harmonious is to build those personal relationships before your support animal comes home.
the people at PAWS recommended offering our landlord a deposit but we chose not to do this. just to be clear, legally you do not owe any extra money for keeping a support animal, nor do you have to wait like we did to get one (in fact, the advocate at PAWS alluded to the fact that ADA law covers having an animal even without the dr’s prescription or tag). however, many landlords are resistant to the animal being there and strong arming yourself into a support animal probably won’t be conducive to a happy living arrangement. you don’t want to be at odds with your landlord or the other tenants over your animal.
we started by contacting our landlord by phone and letting him know that we had a prescription for a support animal and planned to bring her home. we scanned all of her paperwork and her pet resume along with a photo and emailed it to him. at that point, i think it would have been hard for him to turn us down.
offering a deposit is one way to help reassure them that you will keep your apartment in good condition. since we were planning to bring home a pit bull, we opted for renters insurance, which insures us in case our dog does the unthinkable and bites someone. our renters insurance company wrote a letter stating that we as well as our dog were covered under this policy. again, while this is NOT required to get renter’s insurance its a wise investment for anyone renting and it went a long way in smoothing things over with our landlord.
one thing i wish we would have done but didn’t is to notify the tenants that birdie was coming. we live in a four-unit building and everyone in the building loves our dog (and so does the landlord) except for one. we have recieved notes on our door, complaints to our landlord, and general difficulties with this person over our dog. i can’t help but wonder if we had taken the time to personally let each tenant know about her arrival if our relationship with this tenant would be better.
so there you have it folks, our process on getting a support animal. i hope it takes some of the mystery out of the process for you. and just for some motivation, here is another adorable picture of birdie. you know, just in case you haven’t seen enough of them lately.