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College Students' Use of Emotional Support Animals

The pros, cons, and complications of ESAs on campus.

Key points

  • Emotional support animals (ESAs) can be effective at decreasing college students' stress.
  • There are several laws, licensing rules, and policies that may surprise students requesting an ESA.
  • Licensed therapists are essential in evaluating and supporting the use of college student ESA.

Navigating the challenges of college life can be overwhelming at times, and many students seek ways to support their mental and emotional well-being. One increasingly popular option is the use of emotional support animals (ESAs). I receive requests weekly from students asking for help with obtaining an ESA. These furry companions provide comfort, companionship, and unconditional love, delivering valuable emotional support to their owners. In this post, I explore how college students can benefit from emotional support animals and navigate the process of obtaining and caring for them.

Emotional support animals are not the same as service animals or therapy animals. While service animals are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities, and therapy animals are trained to provide comfort in therapeutic settings, emotional support animals offer companionship and emotional support to individuals with mental health conditions or emotional challenges. If there seems to be some messy overlap in these definitions, that is one of the challenges of ESAs.

Benefits of Emotional Support Animals for College Students

  • Stress Reduction. Interacting with an emotional support animal can help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation. Spending time with any pet has been shown to lower cortisol and norepinephrine levels and increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and well-being.
  • Loneliness Reduction. College life can often feel isolating, especially for students living far from home or adjusting to a new environment. ESAs provide constant companionship and can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Improved Mood and Emotional Health. The presence of an ESA can boost mood and emotional well-being. Their unconditional love and affectionate nature can provide comfort during times of sadness, anxiety, or depression. All pets also require some sort of routine (like feeding time and going for a morning walk for a potty break). This routine nudges students to improve their own daily routine.
  • More Physical Activity. Regular physical activity has numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. Owning any larger pet often encourages physical activity, as students take their emotional support animals for walks, play with them, or engage in other forms of exercise.

How to Obtain an Emotional Support Animal

  • Consultation. Before obtaining an emotional support animal, students should consult with a mental-health professional, such as a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. The professional can assess the student's emotional needs and determine whether an emotional support animal is appropriate.
  • Evaluation and Letter. After talking with a mental health professional, if a student wants to move forward with getting an ESA, they will have to meet with the same licensed therapist (or someone to whom their therapist refers them) for a needs evaluation. This should be a formal evaluation looking at four key areas: Related Laws; 2) Client's Disability; Animal Assessment; and Interaction between the Client and the Animal. This seems simple and subjective but in recent years, there’s been increased pressure on mental health professionals to conduct more thorough evaluations of requesting clients since an ESA should technically only be recommended as an intervention for a specific mental health diagnosis. The rules, laws, and licensing-board expectations around this, however, tend to be vague and inconsistent, but students can expect a therapist to ask about previous and current symptoms and diagnoses and how an ESA could help to mitigate them.
  • Laws and Policies. The next thing to do is to learn about one's legal rights and housing policies. It's essential for college students to understand their legal rights regarding ESAs under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The FHA deals with housing access and laws while the ACAA deals exclusively with airline travel. There is no overarching law for ESAs at college, however, so students should familiarize themselves with their college's policies regarding ESAs in campus housing and classrooms. One significant misunderstanding: ESAs are not covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Choose Wisely. When choosing an ESA, students should consider their living situation, lifestyle, and preferences. While dogs and cats are the most common emotional support animals, other animals, such as rabbits, birds, or even reptiles, may also provide companionship and support. I’ve seen too many students fall in love with a cuddly, furry ball of love only to find out months later that the dog or cat is pathologically incapable of apartment living. Some breeds need more exercise and companionship than others. Some breeds also can be either more aggressive or more protective of people and things. This is definitely not a good trait for an ESA the student will be taking around campus, to restaurants, and to friends' places.
  • Professional Care and Training. If one is simply trying to have an existing pet "converted" to an ESA designation, they probably already have some routines and good care nailed down. But if a student's ESA would be their first-ever pet, it's crucial for them to learn how to provide proper care, including regular veterinary check-ups, grooming, and exercise. I recommend that students with new ESAs sign up for professional animal behavior programs to ensure that their new companion learns appropriate campus behavior. Additionally, students should ensure that their ESAs are well-behaved and trained to behave appropriately in various settings, not just the apartment or classroom.

ESAs can play a valuable role in supporting the mental and emotional well-being of college students. From reducing stress and loneliness to improving mood and promoting physical activity, animal companions offer a range of benefits. With an understanding of the processes for obtaining and caring for emotional support animals—and compliance with legal and housing policies—students can experience the many rewards of having an emotional support animal by their side as they navigate the challenges of college life.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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