Universities Struggle with the Spike in Emotional Support Animals

As reported cases of mental health conditions have increased on college campuses, so have the number of student requests for emotional support animals.

Understandably, a loving animal companion can serve as a much-needed distraction for students suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

And since today’s students are generally more comfortable considering, discussing and addressing their mental health, seeking help from a furry friend has become more common.

“There has been a lot more normalization of the stigma around mental health,” said Carol O’Saben, a licensed psychologist in Flagstaff, Ariz. “People don’t feel so negative about it, and are more willing to acknowledge that they need an emotional support animal in order to be able to cope.”

Although it is important for universities to allow students to do whatever they need to improve their mental health, the institutions also have a responsibility to look out for the student down the hall who may have a severe animal allergy or phobia.

Cases of allergies and aggressive behavior, along with the need to consider the mental wellbeing of animals, have universities struggling with the complexities around granting students permission to have an emotional support animal.

What is an emotional support animal?

Emotional support animals, service animals and pets are all very different things. Each title suggests different assigned rights and responsibilities, explained O’Saben, who spent the majority of her career working in university counseling centers.

Service animals have to go through intense training so they can perform specific tasks for their owners. Examples of service animals include guide dogs, which are trained to lead people who are blind or visually impaired, and diabetic alert dogs, which can sniff out changes in their owners blood sugar and others.

Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are not always trained. Specifically, they are there to provide their owners with comfort and distraction.

“An emotional support animal, by definition, is an animal that you need for living or while traveling in order for you to not be encumbered by your disability,” said O’Saben.

“Often students get emotional support animals and think that means they can take it into classrooms, dining halls, office spaces, and that’s actually not true,” she continued.

When O’Saben recommends an emotional support animal to a student, she writes the letter to either a housing environment and/or an airline, so students can live and/or travel with their pets.

Benefits of emotional support animals

The transition to college, along with the financial burden attached to an education, can add many pressures to a young person’s life.

To get through tough times, people often rely on their companions. Emotional support animals can help those whose depression or social anxiety has made it difficult for them to meet people and build important human relationships.

Along with an animal’s ability to “just be there” for its owner, laying down for bed with a cat or a dog can help someone with anxiety sleep better, O’Saben said.

Animals can also push people to get out and exercise, which is pivotal to alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety.

O’Saben recalls one example of a patient whose depression was causing her grades to slip. Once she got an emotional support dog, however, she was encouraged to get out more and walk her dog, which caused her depression to turn around and ultimately improved her school work.

Concerns surrounding emotional support animals

Nearly any pet owner can recognize an animal’s ability to heal and comfort. But it is important for students to differentiate what it means to want a pet and need an emotional support animal.

A small dorm room isn’t always conducive to an animal’s wellbeing.

“What if a student decides to go out at night and, as college students often do, maybe they drink, maybe they just stay out very late, and they don’t come home to take care of their animal,” O’Saben said. “It might mean that the animal gets neglected in their residence hall. Maybe, if it is a dog, it urinated or defecated in the residence hall, so then it becomes a public health issue.”

If an animal has fleas and is not properly groomed or taken care of, that could also become a public health issue, O’Saben continued.

Because emotional support animals are often not trained, their attitudes and aggressive traits are, at times, unpredictable. Some animals also suffer from anxiety, so when they are put in an uncomfortable situation or feel threatened, they might bite. This could result in an injury and, subsequently, cause an animal to be put down.

“Not all animals have the right temperament to be an emotional support animal,” said O’Saben.

Emotional support animals on campus

The uncertainties surrounding emotional support animals, paired with the increase of student applications for them, have universities struggling to come up with specific ground rules.

While rules vary by university, generally, to become eligible to have an emotional support animal in the residence halls, students must provide proof of being diagnosed with a disability defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and they must have documentation from a medical provider demonstrating that their emotional support animal directly helps them overcome their disability.

Some universities, such as Washington State University, go an extra step by placing specific requirements on individual animals.

The university takes the position that it has the right to refuse an animal if it is not housebroken, would pose as a threat to the safety of others, would cause damage to the property or would alter the nature of a program or activity.

While at times it seems like a no-brainer for a university to allow students suffering from a mental health issue to take their emotional support animal in their dorm, it becomes more difficult when the neighbor has a competing problem.

“How do you manage, for example, a student with a chronic health issue who lives in a residence hall and the health issue is made worse by dog dander, and there is someone down the hall who has an emotional support animal?” O’Saben asked. “It is a balancing that universities are having to manage.”

“My understanding is, that if somebody is qualified as having a disability, and they have appropriate documentation from a medical or mental health professional explaining how this animal helps this person overcome their disability so they can enjoy their accommodations, there isn’t really grounds for a university to stand on to refuse that,” she continued. “So that puts a university in a bind, if they have a competing issue down the hall.”  

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