More College Students Enrolling Emotional Support Animals.


By Elisabeth Buchwald

University enrollment is on the rise, especially if you have four legs.

At first glance, Cadee is a friendly 10-pound brown Chihuahua. To Grace Wilkowski, a 19-year-old sophomore at Washington State University who is majoring in nursing and psychology, Cadee is a cherished companion or, more officially, a registered emotional support animal, or ESA, who lives with her in her dorm on campus.

Wilkowski did not begin college living with Cadee. But after a tough first semester, it occurred to her that living with her dog, which she has had since eighth grade, could help mitigate the effects of Wilkowski’s major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety.

“I feel really lucky to have her when I have random stressors,” she said. “In times when you stop caring about yourself, she does. She knows when I’m upset and she’ll come sit on my lap and always makes me feel loved unconditionally.”

After getting approval to live with an ESA, Wilkowski said she still has to regularly check in with the school’s housing office to make sure she is complying with housing regulations and that Cadee is not damaging her dorm. Even though Cadee is only permitted in university housing and not allowed in classrooms or public buildings, Wilkowski is required to carry a card with her at all times that verifies that the pet is a registered ESA.

Emotional support animals have been something of a hot topic lately. Airlines have been clamping down on ESAs after passengers have reportedly brought (or attempted to bring) chickens, giant rabbits, piglets less than eight weeks old and other non-human primates on board.

After two high-profile court cases involving colleges denying student requests for ESAs, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development updated the Fair Housing Act in 2013 to require that schools accommodate requests for emotional support animals in dorms.

“An assistance animal is not a pet,” the Fair Housing Act states. “It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”

Since then, universities have seen an influx of student requests for ESAs as colleges and universities try to improve resources for students who struggle with anxiety and depression. These colleges want to reduce stress, loneliness, depression, anxiety and other emotional barriers that may prevent students from having a more enjoyable and academically productive college experience.

Anxiety and depression are two common reasons for ESAs

Unlike service animals, ESAs do not need to be trained to provide a form of companionship that has been found to help relieve depression, anxiety and/or stress.

“Anxiety and depression are the most common psychological conditions that we are seeing in student’s request for ESAs,” said Meredyth Goodwin, director of the Access Center at Washington State University. Other reasons for having an ESA include, but are not limited to, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias and personality disorders.

In 2011, she recalls receiving only three requests for ESAs. Since 2013, she said, “We have received up to 75 requests a year.” Currently, she estimates that there are 200 ESAs living with students on WSU’s campus.

Keith Anderson, the president-elect of the American College Health Association and a staff psychologist and outreach coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, has also witnessed an increase in the number of requests by students for ESAs.

The prevalence of a filtered, happy version of student life on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook can make students feel even more stressed, particularly those who are vulnerable and feel alone, he added.

Furthermore, this generation of college students is finding it increasingly challenging to live independently, Anderson said. Students are used to their parents rushing to help them when they are in distress, he added. Emotional support animals help fulfill that role.

“While the trend of having emotional support animals on college campus is relatively new, the ameliorative effects of animals are not,” wrote C.W. Von Bergan, the author of a 2015 report entitled “Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals and Pets on Campus,” published in the Administrative Issues Journal.

Health improvements — from lower blood pressure to improved heart health — have been pegged to owning pets. In particular, college-aged students who have a mental or psychiatric illness benefit from animal companionship, according to Bergan.

There is a rigorous approval process for ESAs in colleges

To bring Cadee to her dorm, Wilkowski filled out a personal statement about how her medical condition impairs her ability to function, especially in relation to university housing and how having an animal will help alleviate the impact of her medical condition.

Additionally, her psychiatrist submitted a letter to the university describing her mental illness. To Wilkowski’s delight, her application was approved within one week.

“If we have documentation that gives us the information that we need, we never deny requests for ESAs,” said Washington State University’s Goodwin. “Unless it is some sort of farm animal that would not be fit for living in a dorm on campus.”

However, not all requests meet the criteria. In an attempt to get the proper documentation, some students pay to get letters from online therapists.

“We see around 10 letters each year from the same therapist based in Hawaii,” Goodwin said, “and if the person grew up in Idaho it’s, like, ‘hmmm,’ help me understand this therapeutic relationship.”


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