Do You Qualify for a Service Cat?


Cats have a well-earned reputation for being self-absorbed and unhelpful, but there is a sizeable number of service cats in America. You don’t see those service cats walking around town on a leash very often, though, because they don’t provide the same kinds of services dogs often do. Rather than guiding or helping blind people or people with disabilities, cats are increasingly used to help people with anxiety or mental health issues.

Have you ever noticed how the mere presence of your cat can make you more calm, and how relaxing it can feel to just sit and pet your fur child? This effect doesn’t seem to be purely psychological. Studies suggest that petting and caring for a cat can bring down heart-rate and relax your muscles. Anxiety disorders can increase heart rate and cause tension, so a cat can alleviate those symptoms.

Unfortunately, some people live in apartments or houses whose owners prohibit pets. If you need a cat because of your anxiety disorder or a mental health issue such as depression, your landlord has to let you get one. It’s a right assured by the American’s with Disabilities Act, a federal law.

Some states have laws protecting landlords. Arizona does, for example. But most states have some sort of additional fair housing laws. It’s called something different everywhere. Most states have these programs, which are usually run by cities or counties. If you’re looking for what office assists with such things, simply use your favorite search engine to look for “fair housing reasonable accommodation” and then type your state and city.

The process is basically the same everywhere.

Before we start, I should mention the exception. With one type of landlord, it is much harder to seek such legal accommodations. These landlords are protected from a lot of laws, and they tend to be the least reasonable. Who are they? Any landlords who live on site and either rent you a room in their home or rent units in small multi-unit dwellings (such as a duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes) might not be obligated to make an accommodation.

If you believe that a cat might help with emotional problems, the first person you should talk to is your clinician, the person you talk to most frequently for treatment. If that person agrees that a cat would be helpful, have that person write you a letter to that effect. You should either scan that letter or make copies of it, because you might need to send it to multiple places.

Next, write your landlord a letter. Don’t be aggressive, don’t mention the Americans with Disabilities Act, or other law. Tell the landlord that you’re seeking treatment for whatever your condition is, and that your clinician believes a cat would be helpful. Include a copy of the letter, and give it to your landlord. If your landlord says okay, you should ask for a note that approves getting a cat and then go to your local shelter.

If, however, the landlord resists, you should contact your regional housing authority or other body that oversees such matters. Some cities and counties have rent boards, for example. A homeowners association, if you rent from one of the members, might also be able to help. Call or visit the appropriate office and explain your situation. Bring another photocopy of that letter. The people there should be able to tell you how to file a complaint. Sometimes a housing authority doesn’t deal with these cases, but they can probably refer you to the agency that does.

If this doesn’t work, find the legal aid center in your area. These organizations aim to ensure that everyone gets legal assistance regardless of their income level. Every legal aid office in America deals with housing issues. They’re very experienced in these areas. Your local legal aid office will know more about housing law in your city or county than almost anyone. Most legal aid offices are geared toward helping those who can’t afford lawyers, so, if you take this route, and you can afford a lawyer, you should make a donation. I’ve noticed in my experience, however, there is a correlation between the financial means of tenants and the reasonableness of landlords.

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