Setting Policies For Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are becoming increasingly common, including on college campuses. These animals are used to provide therapeutic and emotional support to people who receive a prescription from a mental health professional. While current and accurate numbers are hard to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that requests for emotional support animals (or ESAs) are increasing in frequency on college campuses. Many universities have University Counselling Centres (UCCs) that help students with a range of physical and psychological challenges; UCCs have long made accommodations, for example, to allow blind students to attend classes with service animals.
In recent years, a growing number of students have started looking toward ESAs to help with physical and psychological disabilities. The growth has underscored the fact that ESA-related regulations, policies, and laws are unclear. UCCs may not know how best to help students making these requests. Without more concrete information, it can be hard to tell whether this trend is positive or negative. Regardless, researchers are aware of the growth in ESAs and want to gain a better understanding of it.
The aim of this study was to get ahead of the phenomenon by exploring multiple facets: the prevalence of requests for emotional support animals; how UCCs are currently handling these requests; examples of current policies; and suggestions to UCCs on best practices for how to handle requests.
Firstly, some of the confusion on this topic stems from the fact that ESAs are not actually considered “service animals,” since they are “not trained in specific tasks to assist an individual with a disability.” As such, the laws that apply to service animals for the blind or hearing impaired do not apply to ESAs. In a survey disseminated through the Association for University and College Counselling Centers, researchers found that current policies are a patchwork. Much work needs to be done to standardize policies, and the authors outline a step-by-step process in detail.
The process outlined in the paper is meant to protect universities from legal challenges related to ESAs, while also accommodating students. For animal advocates, our focus should be on influencing ESA-related policies to thwart possible abuses and to protect the interests of animals. Advocates may also want to think about how these policies may help to make the university a more welcoming place for companion animals, without putting their welfare in jeopardy.