Mary had a little (emotional support animal)

“Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow. It followed her to school one day; Which was against the rules.” — Sarah Josepha Hale, child’s nursery rhyme.

Feeling homesick? Classes have you overwhelmed? Maybe a pet will help. That’s the thought behind the upswing in college students applying for and receiving emotional support animal certifications over the past decade. So, what’s the big deal if Fido comes to school with you?

College students have experienced, or reported, higher levels of anxiety and mental illness over the past decade according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With the increased levels of stress and mental illness, students may be seeking help from sources that are “outside the box.” One source is an emotional support animal. 

Research is mixed on the benefits of emotional support animals. In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Jeremy Bauer-Wolf explained requests have risen, which may cause challenging situations for college campuses. Federal law protecting ESA’s prevents investigative questioning into why an ESA is needed, which may lead to universities struggling with fraudulent claims. 

Lauren Siffert, a sophomore microbiology major, shared her story of trying to help her roommate get the documentation she needed for her ESA. They started with Accessibility Services here on campus to get the facts. 

“I called Accessibility Services and they said ‘don’t do the stuff online,’” Siffert said. 

Her roommate had a letter from her doctor, which is the right place to start. Getting certified from a doctor or therapist you have a relationship with also strengthens the claim if you are challenged, according to an article from The New York Times. The article goes on to explain many states are beginning to “crackdown” on false claims of ESA. 

John Newlove in BG is federally compliant with the requirements when it comes to ESA accommodations. Not only did they provide a copy of all the pet friendly housing they have, they also gave a copy of the federal guidelines for review. Their lease agreements do not have an ongoing pet “rent” or fee. They charge a one-time fee when the pet comes, and that lasts the life-time of the pet. 

Newlove, Greenbriar and Almar all spoke about the housing they have available and gave copies of the pet policies.  All three had both pet-free, and pet-friendly, housing for those interested. The benefit is there’s no need to go the route of getting certified with a mental illness to have a pet live with a person who wants it.  

Obtaining an ESA letter works if a person has a verified mental illness. Barring that, a person could be looking at fraud charges if it could be proven they are not in need of emotional support.  “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Milan discusses the downside to ESA abuse on his website.

“This isn’t just about bothering people who might be allergic or who don’t like dogs. It can be a very stressful experience for a dog that isn’t trained to handle crowds or busy public places. It can also harm people with a legitimate need by forcing businesses to question everyone with a service animal,” he said in an article on what some think is a victimless crime.

Twenty-three states have laws against fraudulent service dogs, but Ohio isn’t one of them. The penalties vary by state, and can range from a $100 fine to fines of $1,000 and six months in jail. 

Taryn Ruebusch, a senior human development and family services major, said a pet would definitely help her stress levels. She has owned pets most of her life, and looks forward to owning one again.  She said she wasn’t sure as a college student that now was the time to have a pet.

“The fact that I am not sure where I am going to be after I graduate makes it hard. I plan on moving in with my parents or my sister, and they both already have cats. I think getting one now would be a bad idea because it could make it hard when I move on,” she said. 

She also added pets are a huge responsibility. One she is capable of, but not one she wants to take on right now. She said she would definitely consider fostering as an alternative after watching a friend do it.

“She fostered an older dog when the shelter didn’t have enough room for all the dogs. She had it for about two weeks. It was a great experience,” Ruebush added.

For the average college student, bringing Fido, or Fluffy or even Slithers may be helpful, or it may create its own challenges.  Ultimately it comes down to weighing the pros and cons and making the decision that works for you. For Siffert, the stress relief is worth any hassle. 

“It’s definitely helped my mental health. Having him be weird, having him run through the apartment after a water bottle or a ping pong ball is great. It just makes you happy or smile. When you sit down and he just wants your love and it’s such a pure love — That’s what makes it worth it,” she said.