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Just for the record, It’s not a pet: Emotional support and service animals on college campuses

When students think of college the first thing that comes to mind is the responsibility of living on their own, and all that comes with that new-found freedom. As young adults, living on campus can be a bit overwhelming and exciting. Students who are adjusting to having freedom and limited housing rules and policies can struggle with this new challenge. For students living in on-campus housing it is very important they understand the housing rules and policies, the university student code of conduct policy, the Fair Housing Act, Title XI, and their rights as a student. Every student attending a public institution has rights under the U.S. Constitution. Policies may vary based on if the institution is public, but over the years college housing has seen a growth in students and their furry little friends joining the community. From my experience working in student housing, students are struggling to submit documentation for their emotional support and service animals. With the new-found focus on emotional support and service animals it is best to educate both students and housing professionals on such issue.

Many students with disabilities and mental health concerns are encouraged by their doctors to apply for an emotional support or service animal to aide them with their everyday life. Students in need of such animal requirements have every right to have their support animal join them in on-campus housing under the federal Fair Housing Act. It is very important that the university housing program has an emotional support and service animal policy in place to better support the students with disabilities. Failure to do so will violate the Fair Housing Act, as what happened in the United States of America v. Kent State University, et al. case. The issue many housing professionals see with emotional support animals and service animals is the student’s ability to alibied by the university and on-campus housing policy in regard to such animals. For example, The University of Texas at San Antonio requires individuals with disabilities who are requesting an ESA/SA in UTSA housing to provide appropriate documentation to the Documentation Review Committee in Student Disability Services. Typically, on-campus housing requires the student to provide proper documentation that supports both student and animal. For example, student must provide the animal’s most recent shot records, a photo or photo I.D. of the animal, a completed copy of the university addendum for Emotional Support Animals, and supporting documentation from a doctor stating that there is a need for the student to have a support animal or service animal. Once the ESA/SA is approved to live in on-campus housing, the student has to maintain their living space.

Although both ESA/SA are supported by most institutions, it is important that students understand the difference between the two types of animal requirements. The September 2010 Department of Justice ruling defined a recognized service animal as a dog. Universities and housing professionals are not allowed to ask any questions pertaining to the student’s disability or the type of training the service animal has undergone. In the Alejandro v. Palm Beach State College case, the university over stepped their boundary when they asked the student to describe her need for the service animal, how the dog had been trained to signal an attack, and when a professor found out the student’s disability, he advised the student not to bring the service animal to class. Of course, the court ruled in the student’s favor due to the violations to Title II of the American with Disabilities Act.  Universities and higher education professionals have no such right to make such call.

Emotional Support Animals are defined as an animal that provides emotional and therapeutic support to individuals suffering from emotional issues, psychiatric problems, or anxiety. A cat or dog is normally recognized as an ESA, but other animals like snakes, pigs, etc. can also be a registered ESA. Universities and housing professionals should never rely on their own judgment to determine if a student should be approved or is in need of an ESA. In the United States v. University of Nebraska Kearney case the university inquired about the student’s need for the ESA and refused to accommodate. No matter the university or housing professional’s personal opinion on ESAs, the laws and policies in place for ESA trumps any opinion, personal belief, or values. 

Now that you have been informed about Emotional Support and Service Animals, how would you handle or approach when faced with such challenges?

This post was authored by Trenshaé Gilbert, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio and an assistant director of residence life at UTSA for Campus Living Villages

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Reader Comments (12)

I think its a touchy subject and I that can't be defined when its an emotional service support animal. I am a pre-k teacher and have a student that has an emotional support animal at home, I think its something that some people try and get away with so they can have their "pet" in residence but others seriously need these pets. I know of someone who is a house fire victim and every time they are in a closed building area their anxiety gets high. Their animal helps them overcome the anxiety as well as give them the soothe and comfort that they need to cope with situation. Good points and case with laws attached to blog.

April 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Redwine

I don't agree that snakes, pigs, and some other animals should count as emotional support animals. There is something strange about it all, but I can understand dogs, cats, and even some birds. Your post is good though and I appreciate the case law. It is fascinating is seeing how the courts view this issue.

I also not sure what to make of universities and housing professionals not being allowed to ask any questions pertaining to the student’s disability. I am not so sure that is the best solution to resolving abuses.

April 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKyle Richey

I think that every professional should have some knowledge of what an emotional support animal does for students. Even if the professional does not work in housing, they will still interact with students and eventually will come across with a student who has a service animal. However, I do believe that it is still the student's privacy to not have to share what their disability is, but still provide the required documentation to the offices needed.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNelly Reyes

I think policies surrounding ESA/SA and how to properly address concerns about the animals is an important topic to discuss. When animals are seen on campus it is an easy reaction to want to play or pet with the animal but it is important for people to remember why it is that a student has the animal to begin with. Approaching the student and questioning them can easily cause the same kind of harm that the animal is trying to rid them of.

Personally I hope that ESA/SA become more common because the animal is a visible indication that a student has some type of mental or physical issue that they are getting assistance with. Having something like this be seen can encourage other students to also go help or speak with somebody about their anxiety or other issues they are facing.

April 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos A Velez

This is purely anecdotal but, as a faculty member, I've had contact with a variety of different ESAs and SAs in my classrooms and have never personally had any problems arise around the presence of these animals. I think ESAs are more of a topic of controversy because of the newness of the concept. People may be more likely to understand the purpose and training required of SAs, but ESAs (as your post highlights) are potentially a whole different issue (I'm resisting the obvious pun).
I appreciate how your post highlights the need to build comprehension of ESAs and SAs policies. Given this newness, I think college administrators have a big role to play in terms of providing effective training for all employees to help mitigate conflict beforehand. If employees understand the purpose of the animals and understand who they should contact if they have questions—it may help prevent confrontations with the students themselves. It's important for administrators to plan for potential dispute, and provide avenues for effective communication.

April 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAmelia King-Kostelac

I agree with Carlos that the increased prevalence of ESAs may encourage other students to ask for help, or realize they are not the only one struggling. I think many students often think they are the only one having a hard time adjusting. With social media, where people often post only the positives of their lives, students end of making inaccurate comparisons. Thank you for sharing more about ESAs. I am guilty of thinking students just want their pet with them instead of them truly being an ESA. This post reminds me that there are more issues at play and it is important to not make assumptions. Furthermore, ESAs are becoming an issue beyond higher education too (the story of the ESA peacock trying to fly on United comes to mind). Like the suicide blog post, the issue of ESA is another reminder that education is needed for the whole student- social emotional learning is important. Teaching students coping skills and how to give themselves positive self-talk may help them as they move through higher education and beyond.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Severance

I personally struggled the most with my mental health after I transferred to a major university. I could have benefited greatly from an emotional support animal and I am glad to see that more and more people are utilizing them to alleviate mental and emotional distress. There are cases of students (and people in general) attempting to pass of ordinary pets as service animals or ESAs when they have no use for either. I think the best way to curtail this behavior is to simply raise awareness. Many people hear about the concept of an ESA and think "if I do that then my dog can live with me wherever" without thinking about the real consequences that can have for other people who truly need them. I don't think the behavior is in itself insidious, but rather that it comes from a place of ignorance.

I do think there is value in removing the housing staff itself from the decision to allow an ESA or service animal. Housing staff should not be the ones in charge of evaluating a students need or ability. That is best left to medical staff and disability services to decide. The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids any action to the contrary to protect differently abled people from harassment or discrimination in the form of disclosing their medical history to a stranger to prove their need for accommodations. However, there must be a point in which housing can act in the case of unruly and untrained animals, especially as emotional support animals often do not have the same (or even similar) training levels as service animals. Students undoubtedly need them, but simply enforcing rules against unruly animals will reduce the amount that this program is negatively taken advantage of.

May 6, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Borden

ESA/SA assist in many ways, I do not think it is the place of anyone to question the use of the animal. While it is going overboard with pigs, lizards, peacocks, etc., we have to remember not all students have the same needs. I do believe a medical professional documentation should be required before the student is able to bring that animal on campus. The documentation should state the animal and what service it provides. The ESA/SA conversation is only a problem because it is abused by so many.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Sherwood

As much as I love seeing adorable dogs on campus I feel like Universities need to find a way to better regulate this system. I think the animals on a college campus that are emotional support animals need to be put on a narrowed list like may be just; cats, dogs, fish, bunnies, and hamsters. I also think that all ESA's need to wear a vest at all times that is different from Service animals that way public safety, housing, and residence life can ask students to take them back to the dorms with out asking why they have them directly. This way even if someone is trying to pass a pet off as a ESA they confined to the dorm regardless. At the same time the university might consider promoting the use of the counselors office, more therapy dog/cat days on campus, or even push campus wide meditation. Give the students other ways to calm themselves, teach them different coping mechanisms.

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTarecka Payne

One thing I notice these days are students are abusing the ESA/SA rules and i'm sure people who are in need of these particular animals have noticed as well. I've seen all sorts of students from fraternity and sorority members saying "it's okay I'll lie and say its a support animal just so I do not have to pay a deposit" to people who try to get out of getting in trouble on campus with their new dog, by saying you can't ticket me it's a support animal. I fully support having these animals on campus if they are used properly and taken care of properly and are approved by a doctor as well as the residence. People don't understand that needing an ESA/SA is a serious matter and people are unaware of the people they are actually offending by saying things like "oh I don't care I am not paying an apartment fee for this dog it's too cute".

May 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos Villarreal

I think that sometimes emotional support animals get a bad reputation or contain a negative connotation because of those who abuse the privilege. When I worked for a mall office, we were told that no animals were allowed. However, when I was working there there were plenty of dogs still visible. Then I notices most of the dogs had "emotional support" written on its chest. I believed every patron needs that animal, until I over heard some shoppers explain that they just bought that vest online and that they get in everywhere now. This is an abuse of a necessity for someone else. The other issue with "emotional animals" is that they are normally issues to those with mental issues. It is hard for others to understand that a patron might have mental issues when they appear to be physically well. That disconnect can really affect the way other view their emotional support animals. Service dogs seem to have the green light for that same reason. You are able to visibly see that the service dog is needed because that person is physically harmed. Understanding, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder and some might understand it or simply claim for millennials to "suck it up buttercup".

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Moya

I support having an ESA/SA on campus, most students need them to help cope with what is happening that not other people can help them with. What really hurts the most is when students are starting to abuse the rules by making a 'pet' an ESA/SA. The people that truly need them are being pushed back because others are abusing the system. That being said people should not backlash on staff on campus that has never experienced having a student with ESA/SA. We should educate our staff and also have our students notify the institution on having an ESA/SA so that it can make the processes easier. Our staff will know ahead of time when living on campus and also when they are attending classes. This will help a lot of our housing when it comes to having a fee for having a pet.

May 8, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterApril Vasquez

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