Emotional support animals provide assist students in several different ways. (Illustration by Yunyi Dai, Maryland Institute College of Art)

Emotional Support Animals Might Be Controversial, but They’re Also Critical

Students with legally approved support animals need them, no matter how funny you think service peacock jokes are.

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Students with legally approved support animals need them, no matter how funny you think service peacock jokes are.

Everyone knows how stressful college can be at times; now, add depression and/or anxiety to that already-present burden and imagine how that pressure increases. For some, this emotional toil can be unbearable and force them to drop out of school and move back home.

In order to cope, some students employ service animals to help reduce their anxiety and manage their stress levels. However, in recent years, the proliferation of these cuddly counselors has become a controversial topic, as it can be hard to discern who actually needs support animals versus who just wants their pet from home to come live with them.

In 2011, the University of Nebraska denied a request from then-student Brittany Hamilton to bring her miniature dog with her on campus. According to the campus’ policy, “Students with a disability who require the use of a service animal may live with an emotional support animal, subject to defendant’s approval of a reasonable accommodation request.”

Hamilton then sued the school for discrimination, and in 2013 a federal judge reviewed the case and found that the university had failed to abide by the Fair Housing Act. As a result, the case set a precedent establishing that universities cannot discriminate against those with disabilities, and that denying a student’s request for a support animal could result in legal action.

Nowadays, to apply to have an emotional support animal, students must undergo a series of steps designed to prove the legitimacy of their request. First, they must provide proper documentation from their healthcare provider stating that they have a disability whose symptoms could be mitigated by an emotional support animal.

The student must have a history of being on medication for their disability, i.e. anxiety and/or depression, and the student’s primary doctor must then write a note explaining why the student would benefit from an emotional support animal. The applicant then needs to present documentation proving the animal’s vaccinations are up to date and that they are spayed or neutered.

Afterward, the student must contact the Americans Disability Act coordinator at their school. Once the applicant has provided this representative with the proper paperwork, the school will then decide if the student is eligible to have their animal come stay with them on campus.

It is a long and painful process. However, the bureaucracy is intended to protect students with disabilities; by making the process complicated, the university effectively prevents students without a medical need for a service animal from bringing one to campus.

Once a student has been approved to bring a service animal on campus with them, they must find the right housing to accommodate both them and their furry friend. They must ensure their housemates and/or roommates are comfortable with this animal staying in the same living space as them, which means getting signatures from everyone living in the house/apartment/dorm before arriving on campus. If the student in question doesn’t get the signatures required, their animal could be removed from campus.

Students living with an emotional support animal must ensure their living corridors are clean and free of animal waste, smells, etc. They must regularly take dogs out to use the bathroom and clean up any feces, and for cats they must keep a clean litter box.

The assistant animals are required to remain inside of their student’s room unless their housemates say that the animal can roam. If the student is found to be neglecting the grooming and/or care of the animal, the school can retract their original agreement for allowing it to remain on campus.

A former student at Lindenwood University – Belleville told me that the hardest part about having her emotional support animal on campus was finding housemates that would agree to have one. “I’ve had to move numerous times because of this,” she said. “Cats are especially hard due to people being allergic.”

While getting an emotional support animal approved is difficult in itself, spending quality time with it can be even more challenging. Unless the animal is legally registered as an emotional support animal, then it will not be allowed in class rooms or any university/college building. If the student is taking a heavy class load, then it can be difficult to find time to make it home and let their dog outside, or make sure the animal is fed and watered.

Over 90 percent of Lindenwood University – Belleville’s student population are student-athletes, which makes animal-owner bonding time even more of a challenge. Students here need to have three or more practices (usually two-hour practices) a week with a minimum of 12 credit hours and a maximum of 18. Similarly, some students must (or choose) to work for financial reasons.

As a result, the hectic schedules of Lindenwood students can make paradoxically make having service animals both more necessary and more impossible. The busier students are, the more stressed they are; their tight schedules, however, make caring for their service pets more difficult.

Still, the animals are more than worth the effort it takes to register for them. Bottom line, if a student on-campus has legally applied and been approved for a four-legged assistant, it is because they have a disability whose symptoms are objectively lessened by the presence of the animal. So long as that objective truth remains protected, there is a future for service animals and a chance of normalcy for their student owners.

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