Emotional Support: Not Your Average Pets

By Catherine Martinez

While the only pets allowed on campus are aquatic ones that can thrive in tanks of no more than 20 gallons, there are other animals that are welcomed onto campus in special circumstances. Emotional support animals are recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act and approved at Malone through the Center for Student Success. 

Emotional support animals are categorized differently than service animals because service animals perform a physical function for their owners. If the owner is blind, the service animal helps guide them; if the owner has a medical condition, the service animal alerts them if their medical condition is of concern at the moment. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, function as companions for a student whose mental health will be improved by the presence of an animal.

“An emotional support animal is one that serves to alleviate symptoms from a psychological diagnosis if a person has severe anxiety, depression or a number of other disabilities,” Anna Meadows, director of the Center for Student Success said. “The emotional support animal serves to alleviate some of their symptoms, or to comfort them as they’re having a panic attack.” 

A student wishing to have an emotional support animal on campus must go through a lengthy approval process. Each step requires documentation, professional approval and patience. 

“I wouldn’t say that [the process] is easy; [the student does] have to have a disability diagnosis and their disability has to substantially limit one or more functional daily activities,” Meadows said. “They do have to specify what their functional limitations are in the documentation.

“It’s a three-step process: disability documentation, documentation from a vet and they then have to sign off on [Malone’s] policy,” Meadows said. “The policy is six pages total that we go through [before] they sign.”

“I honestly think an animal is one of the best ways to help people with depression or anxiety,” Cassandra Loskocinski, senior creative writing major, said. “You obviously have to find the best animal for you, but I would definitely recommend it. It’s not a bad process to go through, it’s just waiting to hear back from people and getting approved.” 

“Students are really lonely, but people also want to physically remain healthy so they’re trying to socially distance,” Meadows said. “I think a lot of people who have a mental health diagnosis are looking for other ways to combat that loneliness. Some are relying on emotional support animals.” 

The numbers of emotional support animals on campus are the highest they have been in a long time. Although the majority are cats and dogs, there are some unique animals on campus, such as Loskocinski’s ferret named Mavis. 

“Mavis gives me a sense that even if I am having a bad day I need to get up and take care of her,” Loskocinski said. “I don’t feel like I am alone. I have someone to take care of and to play with, and it’s helped me a lot.” 

Growing one’s personal community is a common result experienced by those with emotional support animals. Both Loskocinski and Sophie Helms, freshman zoo & wildlife biology major, commented on this aspect of keeping their animals.

“Other than the obvious emotional support, Hopper is a conversation starter,” Helms said. “Having a dog is a very social thing because he just wants to come up and sniff everybody.” 

“A lot of people love to come into my room to see Mavis,” Loskocinski said. “More of my friends come to hang out in my room now, which helps me to not feel so alone because they want to see Mavis and they want to hang out with me. It has made my room more of a meeting and hangout place, which has been really nice,” 

Not everyone has a mental health or medical reason to apply for an emotional support animal. Pollyanna Smith, senior zoo & wildlife biology major, is an advocate for seeking ways to find pets that work for any student, regardless of their mental health status.

“You should get a fish, you should get a snail, you should get an axolotl, you should get a frog,” Smith said. “If you don’t think you can take care of an animal, get a plant. Having something else to take care of … takes away stress and gives you emotional balance.” 

Smith has had an axolotl on campus for the last three years. Serendipity, or Seri for short, lives in a 10-gallon tank and is fully aquatic. This allows Smith to keep Seri without going through the process to get permission for an emotional support animal. 

“Axolotls uniquely fulfill all the requirements for what you can have on campus without it being an emotional support animal, and I wanted something different,” Smith said. “I didn’t want a fish, [but] I love reptiles and amphibians, and she’s an amphibian. She’s stinking adorable.” 

Helms and Loskocinski encourage fellow students to do their homework about the types of pets or emotional support animals they would like to get before they consider purchasing them.

“Hopper is comforting and nice that he’s here for me, but it’s also a little bit stressful to take care of him,” Helms said. “It’s not impossible, but I definitely think it would be a lot easier with a smaller animal.” 

“I would just caution people to do their research on whatever animal they decide to get,” Loskocinski said. “Make sure it’s right for them and will help rather than hinder them.” 

Adopting any pet takes time and careful consideration, and emotional support animals have benefits for those who are approved for them.

 “[Emotional support animals] really help to calm students, especially those in hard academic programs,” Meadows said. “When finals week comes, they really rely on the animals to keep them calm.” 

Students who are seeking out community, battling loneliness, or looking for routine and stability in their life may consider the possibility of adding an animal friend to their dorm room. Whether meant to help with mental illnesses or just there to provide extra companionship, different animals have the potential to be a great fit for students and their various needs.

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