Everything You Need to Know About Having an Emotional Support Animal in College

With a growing number of college students facing mental health issues, it’s no wonder that people are looking for relief in a furry companion. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 75% of cases start by the age of 22. This means that many students are experiencing anxiety for the first time before or during college. The ADAA also reports that Major Depressive Disorder is a top issue for students during their on-campus years. In this situation, an emotional support animal is a great resource and can help ease some of the low points. Emotional support animals are unique in terms of how they help their owners, as compared to service animals. If you're considering getting an ESA it’s important to know these differences so you know the rights your animal has and how they can help you on campus.

The difference between a service animal and emotional support animal

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability." These tasks are usually physical, and the dogs can have many different jobs such as a guide dog for those with sight impairment, a hearing dog for those with hearing loss, or a seizure response dog that recognizes and assists with seizure disorders. Service dogs can also help with psychological disorders! With disorders such as PTSD and anxiety, they remind owners to take their medication, alert them if they sense an episode coming, or other tasks the person may need. Under Title II and III of the ADA, service animals are defined as dogs, but in some instances can be a miniature horse if they are properly trained. Service animals must be trained, but have the right to be trained by their owner.

Emotional support animals do not fall under the definition of a service animal. The United States Dog Registry defines ESAs simply as “an animal that alleviates symptoms of a mental or emotional condition." They do not have to be trained, and almost any animal can be registered as an ESA. These guidelines will be important to keep in mind while filling out ESA paperwork at your college or with on-campus housing.

Related: Puppies, Cry Rooms & Snacks Aren't Enough — Students Need Mental Health Resources

What do emotional support animals do?

ESAs do need to be registered by a mental health professional. They assist with easing symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression through companionship, but are not specially trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. However, through companionship, symptoms brought on by mental illness can be alleviated.

What different rights do they have?

Service animals and emotional support animals are both given rights that non-registered pets do not have. For both types, the animals are not subject to housing and airline laws regarding pets. Under the Fair Housing Act, owners may ask to provide proper identification for their animal but are not allowed to charge extra payment even in no-pet housing. This applies to college dorms as well! Under the Air Carrier Access Act, people with ESAs or service animals cannot be charged extra or required to place their animal in cargo holding during a flight, but need proper identification.

Service animals have more rights than ESAs. For hotels and Airbnb’s, they are considered temporary housing and are therefore not required to house ESAs, but with proper identification, they do have to house service animals. Under the ADA service animals cannot be charged pet fees, cleaning fees, or made to switch rooms unless the animal has caused significant damage to the room. They are also allowed to accompany handlers in restaurants, businesses and service lines, whereas ESAs do not have the right to accompany owners in any business. Service animals can be denied from a place of business if “admitting service animals would fundamentally alter the nature of a service or program."

How can I get an ESA?

If you’re thinking about getting an ESA or service animal, schedule an appointment with your doctor or mental health professional to talk about which is best for you and your needs! From there you'll want to contact your dormitory or housing as they may require a note from your doctor. Your service animal is allowed to go with you anywhere on campus including classrooms and dining halls, but you should let your professors know ahead of time so they can properly accommodate the space for you. With an ESA, universities are not required to allow them to accompany you anywhere on campus. You may ask your professor if they're ok with it, and they'll make a decision. This means your ESA may spend more time in your room and you should factor that into what kind of animal is best for that environment.

Service animals and emotional support animals are a great tool to help people who need them, but there are key differences that make each animal unique. It's important to know these differences whether you're considering getting one, know someone who relies on one or just to know the rules regarding our furry friends. Check out the ADA for some more FAQs, or contact your local university about their own rules.