Most students know the list of items they can’t bring into a university dormitory. They can’t haul in their own beds. They can’t set up a microwave. Candles usually aren’t allowed.
The family golden retriever would usually fall in this banned category.
But no longer does that stop students from asking for emotional support animals -- requests for them have skyrocketed at colleges and universities nationwide.
Washington State University’s Access Center, which handles the needs of students with both psychological and physical disabilities, only fielded two or three requests for emotional support animals in 2011.
Now the center gets 60 to 75 requests a year, said Meredyth Goodwin, its director.
The bouncing bunny, the fluffy kitten and more exotic companions -- ferrets, snakes, bearded dragons -- all of which would have been promptly exiled from a campus residence no more than a decade ago, have become widely accepted features, at least among officials who work to accommodate students with disabilities.
These creatures are meant to comfort students with anxiety, depression or some other mental health issue. They are distinct from service animals, which are legally defined as only dogs or miniature horses that can perform tasks for their handler -- think a guide dog for the blind.
Misinformation and skepticism abound when it comes to both emotional support animals and service animals. How can college administrators differentiate from the student down the hall who needs to pet his cat to ease a panic attack versus the student who just wants to room with Fido?
Students don't need to provide documentation to have a service dog. But they do need a letter from a mental health professional justifying the need for an emotional support animal.
This type of verification can be easily fudged, however, as online services can -- for a certain price -- connect students with a psychologist who would provide them with such a letter, which has led to officials being much more diligent about potential abuse of the system.
“It is one of the issues that all access centers across the country are grappling with,” Goodwin said. “If you go to professional trainings, this is one of the most common items we’re seeing.”
College administrators started taking real notice of emotional support animals seven or so years ago. Students began suing when administrators denied their requests for a furry or scaly roommate, arguing that the decisions violated the federal Fair Housing Act, which protects from discrimination when buying or renting a home. The animals have made headlines elsewhere, too, such as when passengers on airplanes try to take their emotional support turkey or peacock on a flight.
Students who sued universities have won.
In 2013, Grand Valley State University settled for $40,000 with a student who sued the previous year. The institution had told her she couldn’t live with her emotional support guinea pig. A similar, $140,000 settlement came two years later for two students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. The settlement stemmed from a lawsuit in 2011 by a former student who asked to keep a four-pound miniature pinscher named Butch in her apartment for her chronic anxiety but was denied. As recently as three years ago, Kent State University paid out $100,000 to a couple living in university housing who were told they couldn’t have a dog to accommodate the woman’s anxiety.
With case law clearly defining that emotional support animals were covered by the Fair Housing Act, administrators began processing how to deal with such requests.
At Washington State, students who want an emotional support animal must submit a letter from a mental health practitioner outlining a student’s diagnosis and how the creature in question would help alleviate their symptoms, Goodwin said. The university’s housing division makes the final call whether to allow the animal once her office approves it. Officials aren’t obligated to approve every request. Goodwin recalls a dog, she believes a mastiff, that was 200 or so pounds that simply couldn’t live in a dorm room. Eight years ago, when this issue was first coming to light, the university approved a pig that damaged a residence hall, Goodwin said.
The level of scrutiny applied to these requests will vary by institution, said Courtney Cioffredi, the director of student access and accommodations at New England College. But generally the requirements are similar to Washington State’s, she said.
Many administrators in the disabilities field are aware, however, of how easy it is to secure such a doctor's note, Cioffredi said. In 2014 a New Yorker writer went online and, for $140, had a phone consult with a therapist who gave her a letter confirming she needed an emotional support animal. This was after a single call.
At Ohio State University, where about 175 support animals live in the residence halls, administrators tend to flag the “template” letters, said L. Scott Lissner, the university’s Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator and 504 compliance officer. These notes tend to lack the same detail compared to those that came from a therapist with an existing relationship with a student, Lissner said. Ohio State asks for information about a student’s history with the therapist, too, he said.
“Companies that purport to have these interactions online with a licensed psychologist who can opine on your needs [are] more than a bit problematic,” Lissner said.
Service dogs can be trickier than emotional support animals. Miniature service horses are obviously not common on college campuses, though Lissner said he’s heard of a Muslim student owning one at an institution in Michigan (in Islam, dogs are traditionally considered impure).
The ADA only allows officials to ask two questions regarding service animals: Is this animal required for a disability, and what task does the animal perform for you?
Administrators can’t pry beyond those questions -- they can’t force the student to show whatever duty the animal is trained for, and they can’t force the student to show proof of a disability. Theoretically, anyone could order a service dog vest from Amazon, slap it on a dog and take the dog wherever they like around campus, including inside buildings. Goodwin said that students could bypass all of the institution’s policies around emotional support animals by declaring their dog was a service animal.
Lissner said that administrators can ask students to remove their service dogs if they aren’t behaving appropriately, such as causing a disruption or invading personal space.
Cioffredi said she’s not worried about students exploiting the vague service animal rules, though. Students who have a service dog sometimes already have their disability confirmed by an institution, usually because they need another accommodation other than the animal. A student with a hearing deficiency might already require a strobe light in a dorm room, for instance, she said.
Often, Cioffredi has found that students who need a service dog will contact a disabilities services office immediately, too.
“It’s usually the first place they stop,” Cioffredi said. “Even before they get on campus, they are calling disability resource centers, asking, ‘What are your processes for this?’ making this transition a little easier for them.”
Because emotional support animals are only permitted under the Fair Housing Act, students who need them can’t take them anywhere they like outside a residence hall or apartment. An emotional support boa constrictor won’t be slithering around a campus dining hall.
Complaints on these animals are handled case by case, officials said. They’ve moved students who are allergic or simply don’t like living with a canine or a rodent. Some institutions have opened pet-friendly dormitories to avoid this. Stetson University started allowing animals inside dormitories as early as 2010, but two residence halls went completely to the dogs in 2015. Students don't need to prove they have mental health issues in this case -- they can bring their pet just because they want to live with their pet.
“Pets can help students socialize and provide much-needed emotional support throughout the academic year,” Lua Hancock, vice president for campus life and student success, said at the time. “They are a great stress reliever, especially during finals and other exams.”
Research is mixed as to whether the animals can help treat mental health problems. One study from 2015 did reveal short-term benefits from exposure to animals. But what is definitive is that college students are reporting anxiety and depression at higher rates. In 2018, the American College Health Association found that 63 percent of students they surveyed had experienced overwhelming anxiety in the past year. And 42 percent of students indicated they found it difficult to function because they were depressed.
Students have asked to live with any number of support animals: birds and snakes, rats. Cioffredi said she once heard of a request for an emotional support cockroach. Dogs are simple, but some of the other animals are not -- when Ohio State considers an emotional support animals, officials check on vaccinations and other potential health hazards, Lissner said. If the support animal eats live food, then administrators would vet that, too, he said.
Institutions have come up with other ways to involve animals in mental health treatment. Bringing trained therapy dogs to campus has become common, particularly around exam time. The University of South Carolina has a resident therapy pup, a year-old English cream golden retriever named Indy, short for Indigo.
Indy has “office hours,” about an hour every day Monday through Friday, said Justina Siuba, a stress-management coordinator there. Indy lives with Siuba when she’s not at work.
She will also take laps around campus and appear at events, Siuba said. When a student schedules a session to talk about stress levels, Indy can be by their side, which helps open them up, Siuba said.
“It’s really important to have a conversation around mental health in the first place,” Siuba said. “Bringing in animals as a means of support for mental health -- these conversations are just so important.”