The typical dormitory supplies list leaves off the family pet—but that is changing at college campuses across the nation, including Oklahoma Christian University.
Washington State University’s Access Center fielded roughly three requests annually for emotional support animals in 2011 and years prior. In recent years, they have seen that number jump to 75 applicants a year.
Students must provide documentation of medical necessity in order to be considered eligible for emotional support animal living arrangements. College administrators, however, have started taking a serious look at the legitimacy of student claims due to a rising number of forged doctor’s notes by both students and online third-party providers.
Director of Washington State’s Access Center Meredyth Goodwin said in an article with Insidehighered.com it has developed into a recurring affair.
“It is one of those issues that all access centers across the country are grappling with,” Goodwin said. “If you go to professional training, this is one of the most common items we are seeing.”
Senior Jordyn Williamson, who owns an emotional support miniature dachshund named Russ, said there is an application process that grants access and rights to an emotional support animal on the Oklahoma Christian’s campus.
“I had to get a note from my doctor saying what my animal was specifically used for,” Williamson said. “After that, I had to fill out a few forms provided by Oklahoma Christian describing my emotional support animal. Although it was designed to be a 30-day process, mine took much longer. Then my roommates were notified.”
Oklahoma Christian’s approval system is relatively standard to universities across the nation in that it does not grant automatic approval despite proper paperwork. This typically is in direct relation to the animal’s safety.
There are several cases of students suing universities for their denial of an emotional support animal, declaring it as a direct violation of the Fair Housing Act. This statute grants legal enforcement outlawing the refusal of housing based on race, gender and disability—this extends protection to those with emotional support animals.
Williamson said the increase in emotional support animals should not take away from those who value the authenticity of its medical purpose.
“I don’t think [the popularity] of pets should hinder people who really need an emotional support animal,” Williamson said. “Having an emotional support animal distracts you from negativity while still giving you responsibilities. It allows me to cope in positive ways, which enhances everyday life.”
The process of approval is tweaked when the pet is documented as a service animal. Unlike an emotional support animal, a service animal is specifically trained to perform a function or task specific to the owner in regards to physical, emotional or intellectual function.
Senior Ivy Lobley said the terms should not be used interchangeably.
“There is a clear difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal,” Lobley said. “Typically the difference is easily identifiable. It is pretty common for a colored vest to be worn by a service dog and not by an emotional support animal. Emotional support animals aren’t necessarily limited to be only a dog either.”
To combat the rise in emotional support animals, institutions are continually providing ways to interact with animals in order to serve as a form of mental health treatment without opening their doors to the animals themselves. Oklahoma Christian acts similarly by providing emotional support animals during finals week.