PHILADELPHIA -- For Sam Hojnowski, her freshman year at La Salle University was challenging. There were some mornings where her anxiety kept her in bed.
But now, her 9-month-old kitty, Lace, has helped ease those worries.
“Having an animal really helps my anxiety and my mental health,” said the college sophomore.
Emotional-support animals continue to make headlines in airplanes (remember the peacock? And the flying turkey? And the squirrel?), forcing airlines to overhaul its policies. Now, college campuses are grappling with similar issues as the number of students who say they need emotional-support animals grows.
Colleges have historically had stringent policies when it comes to pets. But they are beginning to loosen those rules to accommodate a growing number of students who say they need their pets for health reasons.
Mental health experts say the trend has taken hold as the number of students with anxiety and depression keeps rising.
A study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that mental health issues among teens have nearly tripled since 1985.
“We know by research that animals make you feel positive, they teach you how to care and love something, there is a routine piece to having an animal,” said Dawn Soufleris, vice president of Student Affairs at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Why would we not welcome something that is going to help our students be more successful?”
La Salle has 14 students who have approved emotional-support animals – several dogs, two cats, and a gecko. It is part of a growing number of universities who have instituted policies that allow these animals on campus.
Temple University has 20 students who have emotional-support animals living on campus.
“Generationally, as we see students evolve,” said T.J. Logan, vice president of Student Affairs at Temple University, “their needs are evolving, too.”
But critics say the policies are ripe for abuse. A 95-pound pig that was an emotional-support animal at Washington State University a few years ago ended up chewing the carpet and ruining furniture and doors.
Phyllis Erdman, an associate dean for Academic Affairs at Washington State, told Fox59 that colleges have to impose training requirements for the animals and find the right balance between embracing emotional-support animals while still taking into consideration those students who suffer from animal phobias and allergies.
“Colleges and universities are lost at how to handle the situation,” she said.
There has been little research to support the benefits of emotional-support animals. Dr. Thea Gallagher, clinical director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, said the medical field actually knows very little about how or why animals seem to aid individuals.
“There have been few studies, some conducted in the early 2000s which support the benefits of emotional support animals in the elderly population’s life expectancy, but very few following,” said Gallagher.
Still, universities feel legally obligated to comply with emotional-support animal requests.
Yale University reluctantly imposed emotional-support animal policies because of the legality surrounding the Fair Housing Act, which says “persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation for any service animal, including an emotional support animal.” The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability
“We’re trying to implement [the policy] as smoothly as possible here within the Yale community by working to ensure that our rules are fair both for the people who are requesting the animals on campus and for everyone else who then has to live in a community and share the space with those animals,” said Sarah Chang, associate director of the Resource Office on Disabilities at Yale University.
If the universities don’t allow the animals, they could face lawsuits.
In 2013, Grand Valley State University paid $40,000 in a settlement after a student sued the college for preventing her from keeping an emotional support guinea pig on campus. Two years later, two students received $140,000 in a settlement with the University of Nebraska at Kearney after they were denied “reasonable accommodations” to keep two emotional-support dogs. A similar suit at Kent State University cost the school $145,000 the following year.
Gallagher believes that as more students advocate for this form of treatment and therapy, animals on college campuses will continue to increase.
“We do know there is something about the sensory touch is helpful for a lot of people, and something about feeling less alone because we know isolation can make people feel down and depressed,” Gallagher said.
In 2020, La Salle University plans to launch a dog-friendly residence hall to help better accommodate students with emotional-support animals.