Returning to your dorm room/apartment with a companion there waiting can be very comforting. On days students are stressed and struggling with their mental health, being able to cuddle with a furry cat, get out to run with a playful dog or even watch your fish swim can offer immense support and dissolve the outside pressures students often struggle with.
Animals can be a great outlet for emotional regulation and stress relief. But it’s important to fully consider this responsibility and what maintaining a mutually supportive relationship with your Emotional Support Animal (ESA) would entail.
ESAs are prescribed by a licensed professional for the treatment of various psychological disabilities. The animals are utilized as a coping mechanism during times of stress and anxiety.
Courtney Jarrett, Ball State University’s director of Disability Services, knows the potential ESAs have to improve a student's life while on campus. However, she has also observed the detrimental impacts when this decision is not realistically assessed.
“It can be challenging for students to manage their academic workload, employment, obligations with family, and friends and other social aspects of college,” Jarrett said. “I’m not sure how many students prepare for the extra time and costs that are necessary for the care of their ESA when they apply for one through my office.”
However, the amount of ESAs on campus has increased significantly in the last couple of years.
Kat Webber is a fourth-year media major and resident assistant (RA) for Anthony Apartments. Webber has an ESA of their own and has experience with managing ESAs in dorms, as they were an RA in Studebaker West last school year.
With Webber’s RA experience, they have been exposed to some of the issues that come with allowing ESAs on campus. While most of the problems are mistakes, like improper registration, Webber is responsible for preventing problems caused by neglect as well.
“There were quite a lot of times I had to knock on doors and tell residents their ESA needs to quiet down,” Webber said. “There were even a few instances where an ESA wandered out of their dorm, and I had to find their owner.”
While it is a big responsibility, Webber has found having an emotional support animal in campus housing is manageable. She partly credits this to the temperament of her cat, Finnegan.
“He didn’t try to run out of the door, he was very tidy and he didn’t make much noise, but that’s not always the issue,” they said. “When considering bringing an animal to campus, the main thing you need to consider is cleanliness.”
Animals are generally not as clean as people. This means keeping your space hygienic becomes more difficult when a pet is a factor. It’s especially important in small spaces, like dorm rooms and campus apartments.
“Animals are gross,” Webber said. “You need to clean up after them constantly, whether that be cleaning their litter box, wiping down something they spilled, or God forbid, cleaning up vomit. If you have an ESA, the room will be smelly. That’s just a fact. Knowing how to manage that smell is very important. You don’t want to be known as the smelly room, do you?”
Elliott Ulery, third-year public history major, got his dog, Clover, in March of this year for the additional comfort that she brings him in the dorms.
“It helps me a lot because I struggle with anxiety and depression,” Ulery said. “I also have ADHD, so I have this need for physical touch. It’s funny because I make the joke that I’m clingy and, I kid you not, whenever I need the texture, I literally just hold her, and that does it for me.”
Ulery was skeptical about balancing his responsibilities with the addition of a pet, but after making the decision to get Clover, he found it to be manageable when he stuck to a routine. He has noticed one major difference between having a pet at home versus in a dorm room.
“At home, we have a fenced-in backyard, so she can run around whenever she would like, versus here, whenever she wants to go outside she has to ring this bell on our door.”
Webber has come to a similar conclusion as Ulery when it comes to the added responsibility of a pet.
“Not only does he help manage my anxiety disorder, he is also company for when I am lonely,” Webber said. “College is a very lonely place, especially when you didn’t grow up nearby. Finnegan made it so I was never alone.”
Ball State Housing Services decided to establish the ESA policy to “support the well-being of Ball State University students.” Marci Mullaney is the assistant director for marketing and strategy for Housing and Residence Life.
“This policy serves to ensure that students residing in campus housing who require the use of an emotional support animal as a reasonable accommodation will review the benefit of the support provided by such animals,” said Mullaney, via email.
In Jarrett’s experience, students should have a long conversation with a psychological professional before making the decision to register their ESA.
“There may be coping mechanisms that would work better for students while they live in a residence hall, and for their overall college experience,” Jarrett said. “It’s also important to think about the welfare of the animal. Some of them are used to living in a bigger house or apartment, so transitioning to a smaller residence hall room—with large furniture and a roommate among other things— may not be a good fit. It really does depend on the individual student and their treatment plan.”
Ulery’s advice for students considering getting an ESA is simple: If it’s manageable and you feel like you need the support, go for it.
“There’s someone else on my floor that has two emotional support rats, and I’m all for that because, with Clover, I am so thankful that she’s here,” Ulery said. “She really just makes my day. And I encourage people whenever they mention it because I’ve had other people approach me about it and ask me about it. It's definitely worth it and I think it’s very manageable.”
Contact Ella Howell with comments at email@example.com.