Pets have often been shown to bring comfort to owners, whether it be through companionship or easing anxiety.
So it comes as no surprise there is a surge in emotional support animals (ESAs), such as five-year-old Maple who is one clever cat.
Joanne Foster, of Blackpool, has full-bodied ME and has trained Maple since the age of two to detect when she is suffering muscle spasms and calms her down.
The 32-year-old has suffered a catalogue of health problems all her life, including anaemia, IBS and migraines, but it was only when she had her appendix out in her late 20s that her ME symptoms came to light.
She said: “Maple can sense my spasms and she puts her head on my body or arm and headbutts me, to get me to be more alert. I suffer from depression and anxiety and when she sees I need to calm down, she sits on my lap and soothes me.
“Maple is smart for her age. I have had her since she was a kitten and she has learnt it mostly on her own. I just took it step by step. She has learnt how to warn me if I am feeling a little off and when my full bodied spasms are going to start.
“Once, while I was at home, she told me when my carers had left the oven on. She kept looking at me and then the kitchen door until I realised that was what she was trying to tell me.
“When I am out in my wheelchair, she sits on my lap with a harness and lead. Blackpool Victoria Hospital and my GP allow me to take Maple to certain appointments.”
After realising her potential, Joanne got a prescriptive letter from her doctor and applied for her to be registered with American-based private registry service ESA UK, at a cost of £50 per year. The fee covers a certificate, an identification badge and registration on the ESA list.
Although it is not officially recognised in the UK, ESAs are given to people who have been diagnosed with an emotional disability.
Once diagnosis has been cleared by a licensed doctor, the patient will receive relevant documentation to prove the animal is needed for health reasons.
This allows Joanne more confidence to take Maple out in public, as she wears a special vest and harness for identification purposes.
However, ESAs do not have the same legal rights as service animals, and this is something Joanne wishes to change.
Joanne said: “Some places are happy to accommodate Maple, whereas some don’t, even though as she is ESA registered. Sometimes, people are nasty and have stolen her things. "Some people can’t accept it and think I am abusing her, keeping her on a harness, even though I show my disabled badge and letter.
“I would like the law to recognise ESAs and respect them like a working Guide Dog. It would make things easier for people like me and we would not get insulted and kicked out. I want people to understand more and I want other owners like me to have confidence to train their pet and go through the proper channels to get registered.”
Joanne described Maple as ‘laid back and playful,’ and she is currently training her younger cat, Phoenix.
She said: “Maple wears work clothes Monday to Friday so she can be seen when we are out. But weekends, she can run about freely with just her collar on. That’s the time she plays as a cat. I feel really confident knowing I have Maple by my side. I would be lost without her. I love both my cats and wouldn’t be able to do things without them.”