Campus Animals: How to Handle Service and Emotional Support Companions

With Two Major Federal Laws at Play, School Administrators Must Balance Students’ Rights

Campus Animals

Service animals, including those whose job it is to render emotional support, are on the rise. Service Dog Central estimates there are some 387,000 service dogs across the U.S.—not to mention the others types of service animals ranging from miniature horses and monkeys to dolphins and parrots. Even boa constrictors are being pressed into use to help those with bipolar and panic disorders. What does all this mean?  Service and emotional support animals are coming to your campus.

Education and compliance expert Dr. Aaron W. Hughey brings you up to speed on this issue in his webinar for Eli Education, “Animals on Campus: Create Policies for Inclusion, Accountability & Safety.” Hughey explains the differences between service animals and emotional support animals, how to comply with applicable laws, the unique challenges for campuses, and how to maintain appropriate policies for dealing with the complaints which will inevitably arise from having these animals on campus.

Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals: Differences

There are key differences between emotional support and service animals, explains Canine Journal. A service animal (almost always a dog) is an animal trained to help a person with disabilities such as visual impairments, mental illness, seizure disorders, and diabetes. Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and are working animals, not pets, with requirements that they be generally leashed, harnessed, or tethered on the job.

Emotional support animals (ESA), meanwhile, provide comfort, a calming presence, and company. They typically can fly with a person who has an emotional or psychological disability and can qualify for no-pet housing.

Organizations like the National Service Animal Registry make registering emotional support animals easy. Qualification generally requires a diagnosis from a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Registration costs with the National Service Animal Registrygistration start at $54.

“Registration is voluntary; not a legal requirement,” the organization says. “Registering your pet as an ESA, however, not only legitimizes your ESA (making him/her look official), but helps eliminate the hassles and confrontation you’ll encounter without it.”

Service Animals on Campus: Both ADA and Fair Housing Laws Apply

When it comes to service and emotional support animals on campus, depending on your school, you may have to comply with two major federal laws.

A ruling from the Department of Justice in 2010 laid out distinctions between the two animals as they apply to ADA, while the Fair Housing Act defines in broader terms how emotional support animals may be housed.

“These policies apply to any public or private higher education institution receiving federal financial support,” explained NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. “As applied to campus housing, no qualified individual shall be kept from full participation in the institution’s programs or activities, including access to residence halls. The Fair Housing Act (1988) applies to virtually all forms of housing, whether for sale or rent, including residence halls.”

That means reasonable accommodations must be made, as explained in Alejandro vs. Palm Beach State College, when a U.S. District Court in Florida ruled that the damage inflicted on a college campus by the presence of an emotional support animal was outweighed by the benefits the animal gave to the emotionally-distressed student.

With service and emotional support animals here to stay on campus, school administrators need to develop guidelines for their presence. Schools have to navigate a narrow space between the rights of those with and without the animals. At the University of Illinois, for example, students are warned not to pet, feed, harass or startle service animals, or separate them from their handlers. Handlers, meanwhile, can expect their animals to be asked to leave if they disrupt classes, are unreasonably dirty, or pose a danger either to the handler or other campus visitors.

Making these accommodations is not easy, says Hughey, but creating them and making them workable is not an option.

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Jeff Schmerker
About Jeff Schmerker
Jeff has extensive professional experience writing on a variety of topics, from pharmaceutical research to environmental history. He has published more than a half-dozen books, and he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor and restaurant reviewer. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and son.