Increase in support animals challenges necessity

Alexis Campbell, News Contributor

Few would deny that pets can be a source of enjoyment and happiness. However, when it comes to emotional support animals the question of their necessity for people with mental health conditions is one that continues to be debated.

According to Martha Smith, director of the university’s Disability Access Services, requests for emotional support animals across the country have increased in recent years, and OSU is no exception. As requests for ESAs grow, the barriers to having one on campus become evident.

Third-year Animal Sciences major Rebecca Warren lived in Sackett Hall with her emotional support dog Dodger last year. Dodger helped her deal with clinical depression and anxiety. However, a week into this term Warren was informed that she would need to meet with OSU’s Disability Access Services because she had not been re-approved to have an ESA in the dorms.

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“Having severe anxiety, it’s hard to talk to these people who have my mental state in their hands,” Warren recalled of the meetings with DAS.

Current laws and regulations surrounding ESAs are not clearly defined and are often not well-understood. In some cases, students are allowed to live with their ESAs on-campus. However, it is not a guaranteed right.

DAS concluded that Warren no longer had a need for her dog and would not be allowed to live with him on campus. After having had him for the first week of term, she had no choice but to send Dodger back to her hometown to live with family.

According to Warren, living on campus without her ESA has taken a negative toll on her mental health.

“I can live without him, but it hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been happy,” Warren said. 

While the process of being approved to live in the dorms with a service animal is fairly straightforward, Smith explained that it is a little more complex for ESAs.

“There’s a higher bar, you could say, in terms of the interaction with us and the information we’re trying to get to determine if it’s necessary,” Smith said.

DAS uses information from students’ healthcare providers to make the decision, as well as meeting with the student for their personal input. The ultimate decision comes down to whether or not it seems as though an emotional support animal is necessary for a student to have equal access to the residential environment.

DAS only approves accomodations for a year at a time since students’ circumstances often change. In Warren’s case, having an ESA did help her symptoms of depression but now she faces the challenge of how to move forward without him.

“I don’t have time for therapy and my dog was doing what I needed,” Warren said. 

According to Smith, research has not supported the idea that ESAs have a positive impact on anxiety and depression.

“That doesn’t mean that pets don’t make us feel good, but there is no research to show that there is a decrease in the symptoms, or an increase in engagement by students in the residence halls,” Smith said.

For this reason, Smith explained that healthcare providers, specifically mental health care providers, have begun to back away from suggesting ESAs for their patients.

There are many misconceptions about what differentiates an ESA from a service animal. The crucial difference between the two is that a service animal is trained to perform a specific task related to its handler’s disability, while ESAs do not require any training. A service animal is either a dog or a miniature horse, while an ESA can be any type of animal. 

Clarice Baumbach, a third-year Animal Sciences major, has a service dog that is trained to help her with a severe allergy. Although the ADA protects the rights of handlers to take their service dogs anywhere, Baumbach was often regarded with suspicion while living on campus and attending classes with her dog.

“In general, I feel like there’s a lot of people that question those with service animals because of the ones that aren’t actual service animals,” Baumbach said.

Since ESAs do not have the protected right to accompany their owners anywhere like service animals do, it can lead to confusion and questioning of service animal owners.

“It can be frustrating when people will give me side glances, like ‘is that really a service dog?’ ” Baumbach said. 

Because ESAs do not require specific training, there is a greater potential for them to misbehave. This has had the effect of creating somewhat of a stigma against them and their owners.

“I’ve seen people in class with animals jumping all over and it just felt like I was following all the rules and I still didn’t get approved,” Warren said.

According to Smith, one thing that students often don’t consider is the impact of campus and residence halls on animals.

“This is a really stressful environment for animals. There are multiple dogs that have been approved and brought into the residential environment and the dogs don’t adjust well. They become snappy, they bark a lot, they’re disruptive,” Smith said.

In the future, Warren plans on appealing the decision made by DAS by showing her need for an ESA.

“They don’t really know anything about me other than what’s on a paper,” Warren said.