What’s Behind the Rise in Support Animals on College Campuses?

Emotional support animals are still small in number on most college campuses.(Getty Images)

Animals are living large these days. They accompany us everywhere – in stores and restaurants, on airplanes and buses and inside handbags – and they are welcome in more and more public places every year. Some are simply pets, but many serve a larger purpose, as emotional support animals, or ESAs. College and university campuses, in fact, are seeing a rise in requests from students who want to bring an ESA into their dorm room.

This is not surprising, given the increase in the number of students experiencing mental and emotional stress. According to an American Psychological Association survey of 139 college and university counseling centers, the number of students seeking appointments at those centers increased 30 percent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, even though student enrollment grew by only 5 percent during that time period.

In a 2015 article in Administrative Issues Journal titled “Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals, and Pets on Campus,” C. W. Von Bergen writes: “Within the past several years … mentally disabled students have increasingly petitioned colleges with no-pet policies to permit them to bring their animals on campus because they need a companion or emotional support animal to make college life easier and to reduce their stress, loneliness, depression, and/or anxiety.”

Why do more college kids want a furry or feathered friend to help them cope? Bergen lists several reasons. The stigma of mental illness is diminishing, especially among younger generations. More of these kids have been diagnosed with a mental illness and are already in treatment. And college campuses have boosted their mental health services so that “students with a learning disability, mood disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder that would not have been able to attend college and be successful just a few years ago are now able to do so,” he writes.

Emotional Support Animal, Service Animal or Pet?

It’s important understand the distinctions between an ESA, a service animal and a pet. A service animal, almost exclusively a dog, requires special training to perform specific tasks for its owner, such as a guide dog for a blind person or a dog that can turn on lights or open doors for someone who cannot. These animals must be accommodated everywhere, including colleges, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. ESAs can be any animal and require no specific training. But its owner must have documentation from a health professional to show the need for an ESA to be protected under the Fair Housing Act, which allows the animal to live in places where they may otherwise be prohibited to live as just pets, like most college dorms.

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Carol O’Saben, a psychologist in Flagstaff, Arizona, spent the bulk of her career working in college and university counseling centers. “We know from lots of literature that the rates of depression and anxiety have escalated [among college students], particularly anxiety, over the last five years,” she says. This is often linked to the transition to college, the heightened pressure to succeed in school and the financial burden of attending college.

Other literature also shows that animals help. So does thousands of years of anecdotal evidence from anyone who ever owned a pet. “I have four dogs who are my pets, and if I feel anxious, I can pet my dog and feel better,” she says. “That’s the basic biology of it. Pets help people feel more comforted, calm and assured.”

They can also help in other supportive ways. Animals are always a potential topic of conversation, helping those with social anxiety or depression mix with others. And a dog requires its owner to walk it, forcing him or her to get beneficial exercise. “There are lots of valid reasons to have an ESA,” O’Saben says, “and some not valid.” Having a support animal may take the place of engaging in social interactions with people and instead be an excuse to avoid going out. “If they are lonely, an animal can in some situations make it easier not to notice they don’t have personal relationships and aren’t developing the skills to develop those relationships,” she says.

Dogs. Cats. Birds. Rodents?

Emotional support animals are still small in number on most college campuses. Leigh Culley, director of disability resources and services at the University of Pittsburgh, says that fewer than 10 ESAs have been approved in a student body of about 28,000. “We have an established policy for requesting an ESA as a housing accommodation,” she says. “The animal has to provide benefit beyond what a pet might provide. There has to be evidence of it helping. We gather information from the student and from a medical provider in the mental health field.” If there is a roommate, he or she has to approve it as well, she says, or other arrangements are made.

At the much smaller Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Pennsylvania, “We view an ESA as an accommodation, like a medical or religious accommodation, and try to individualize their experience based on what their needs are,” says Tyler Kowcheck, director of residence life. Balancing the needs of the individual student with the needs of others is sometimes the hardest thing. “Someone with an ESA may counteract someone down the hall with an allergy,” he says.

But with only 1,400 students living on the already pet-friendly campus, ESAs hardly make a difference. “Here, everybody knows their neighbor,” he says. There have been no problems with the six ESAs on campus (out of a total of 32 birds, cats, dogs and those “rodent in nature,” Kowcheck says). “Ninety-eight percent of the time, students who have animals are the most responsible students,” he says.

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David Levine, Contributor

David Levine has been covering mental and behavioral health for U.S. News since 2017. A former …  Read moreDavid Levine has been covering mental and behavioral health for U.S. News since 2017. A former health columnist for Governing Magazine and contributing writer for athenaInsight, he currently writes about health and wellness for Wainscot Health Media, Health Monitor, American Healthcare Leader, Advancing Care and other publications, and he is a regular contributor to Super Lawyers and Modern Counsel magazines. He also writes about lifestyle and general interest topics, from history and business to beer and baseball, as a contributing writer for Hudson Valley, Westchester and 914Inc magazines. His freelance writing has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, American Heritage, The New York Daily News Sunday Magazine and dozens of other publications. A former staff editor and writer at SPORT magazine, he appeared on the “Today Show” twice to promote his work for the magazine. He is also the author or co-author of six sports books, including “Life on the Rim” (Macmillan) and “In the Land of Giants” (Little, Brown). His writing has helped many companies win numerous publishing awards, including the Aster, Apex, World Wide Web Health, Society for Technical Communications and Health Information awards. You can find a collection of his work on Contently and you can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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