Campus Therapy Animals Trend Sparks Debate

October 5th 2015

Diana Crandall

It's becoming increasingly common for college students diagnosed with psychological and behavioral disorders to request that therapy animals live on-campus with them.

If it sounds like a joke, it isn't. In 2014, the American Psychological Association published numbers that suggest one-third of American college students had "difficulty functioning in the last 12 months" as a result of depression. The 2013 National College Health Assessment, which analyzed data from more than 125,000 students at 150 colleges and universities, reported that almost half of the students they surveyed felt "overwhelming anxiety" in the same time span.

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Ben Locke, Ph.D., directs the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH). The organization gathers data from more than 263 college mental health centers, and reports that more than 30 percent of the students who seek mental health services have "seriously considered" attempting suicide at some point in their lives. These numbers are on the rise as an increasing number of students turn to therapy animals for emotional support.

What is a therapy animal?

According to the National Service Animal Registry, a therapy animal is a trained and screened animal that provides affection and comfort to their owner. Sometimes the owner has a learning disability, or is in a hospital, retirement home or nursing home. Therapy animals have also been used in hospice and disaster areas.

Why are on-campus therapy animals controversial?

Offices of residence life and housing have reported difficulty identifying who truly needs a therapy animal, and who just wants to bring a pet from home. Even students with a documented psychological need for a therapy animal are running into logistical issues, including where to let the animal use the bathroom, how to bathe it, and how to keep pet dander away from students who have allergies.

Furthermore, what works for one student might be a trigger for another. For example, one student may love his or her therapy pig, but the same animal might trigger phobia and anxiety in another student.

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Are colleges required to approve on-campus therapy animals?

It depends. In the last few years, this is where things have gotten complicated, because some students who were denied emotional support animals on campus filed lawsuits, citing the rejection as a direct violation of the Fair Housing Act. In response, some universities and colleges then allowed students to have therapy animals on-campus because litigation is so expensive.

The United States vs. University of Nebraska at Kearney ruling last month laid down some guidelines for colleges in the U.S., the New York Times reports. Now, a university can deny a request for a therapy animal if it is too large, aggressive, or damages property. A school can also request additional medical documentation from a medical provider if falsification of documents is suspected. Still, it's a small victory for students working on improving their mental health and well-being.