Emotional Support Animals in College Dorms

College can be a difficult time for many young adults. Adjusting to a new social environment, meeting the expectations of professors and keeping up a grade-point average can take its toll on students. For many students, college may also be the first time away from their home support network of family and friends. In addition to the loss of human friends and family, some students have to leave behind a lovable furry companion they’ve had for years.

The mental health of students on college campuses is a serious issue – according to some sources, suicides are the second most common cause of death among college students, and the suicide rate has tripled among young adults since the 1950s. Some students in an effort to improve their mental and emotional health have turned to emotional support animals (ESAs). In recent years, seeing an animal on campus has generally become more commonplace. In addition to the rise in the number of emotional support animals accompanying students in dorms, many schools are using therapy animals to help calm anxious students during stressful periods like exam week.

We will explore the rules surrounding emotional support animals on college campuses. We will also examine whether students have a right to bring an ESA on campus, and how they can properly qualify to become an emotional support animal owner.

Am I allowed to have an emotional support animal in my dorm?

Under federal Fair Housing rules, tenants have a right to be accompanied by an emotional support animal in their homes, even in buildings that prohibit pets. These rules apply to most types of housing and universities are not exempt.

The U.S. Department of Housing has made it clear that university housing is subject to the same ESA rules that apply to other types of homes and apartments. In recent years, there have also been a number of lawsuits where courts have found in favor of students who were at odds with their school over whether their ESA could live with them. One university settled for $140,000 in a lawsuit filed by a student who requested to keep a miniature pinscher in her apartment for her chronic anxiety but was denied. Another university was involved in a $100,000 lawsuit involving a couple living in university housing who were denied accommodation for an emotional support dog.

Fair Housing rules and case law affirm that students in universities have rights as emotional support animal owners, just as they would if they were living in non-university housing.

Am I allowed to bring an emotional support animal to class?

Emotional support animals generally only have the legal right to be accommodated in housing and on airplanes. They are not the same as service dogs, which are trained to perform tasks for the disabled. Service dogs are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) whereas emotional support animals are governed by the Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

A student with a service dog would be allowed to bring their animal to class and other areas of the campus such as the cafeteria and library. Emotional support animals however do not have that right automatically, at least not under federal law. Some universities may have their own policies regarding emotional support animals and where exactly they are allowed. If you’re serious about bringing an ESA to school, it’s worth checking with your university to see what their specific guidelines are.

How do I qualify for an emotional support animal?

Under Fair Housing rules, the only way to qualify for an emotional support animal is to have a recommendation letter from a licensed health care professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, doctor, social worker or nurse. The licensed professional must determine that you have a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities and that an emotional support animal would alleviate symptoms of that impairment. Some common conditions that emotional support animals are used for are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Panic Disorders
  • Stress Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Personality Disorders
  • ADHD

If you are approved by your therapist or doctor, they will issue an ESA letter which you can submit to your school’s administration. It’s important to note that the specific procedures regarding the ESA request process will vary from school to school. For example, some schools will require additional forms from the healthcare professional and other schools will require multiple levels of administrative approval. If you’re considering bringing an ESA to live with you on campus, it’s strongly recommended that you check to see what your particular school’s procedures are for emotional support animals.

Another perk of being an emotional support animal owner is that an ESA letter will also allow your ESA to fly in the airplane cabin with you, at no extra charge. That is an extra benefit for students struggling with mental health issues when they travel back and forth between school and their family home.

Can my existing pet be an emotional support animal?

Unlike a service dog, an emotional support animal by definition does not need any special training. The purpose of an ESA is to provide comfort just through its mere presence. In addition, Fair Housing rules prohibit housing providers from discriminating against ESAs solely because they are a certain size or breed.

Your existing pet may already be providing you with invaluable emotional support, and could be qualified to become your official emotional support animal. Under Fair Housing rules, dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other rodents, fishes, turtles or other small, domesticated animals traditionally kept in the home for pleasure can qualify as an emotional support animal. One university had to settle in a lawsuit with a student who was told she couldn’t live with her emotional support guinea pig.

Although an emotional support animal does not require any special training, it’s still critical that the ESA is properly trained for obedience and good behavior. Students are always responsible for the actions of their emotional support animal. That means if their ESA causes any damage, the student will be liable for any costs. In addition, a university can ban an emotional support animal if it is misbehaving and causing a safety or health hazard for others. 

Who should I talk to if I’m interested in qualifying for an ESA?

The best source to discuss your mental health and interest in an emotional support animal is your existing therapist or doctor. If you currently don’t have a therapist, or are having a hard time finding one, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a licensed therapist that specializes in emotional support animals. The licensed professionals we work with offer their services remotely, so you can be evaluated for an ESA without having to leave your home. 

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In addition, if you would like to revisit a specific topic regarding Emotional Support Animals in colleges, click on the chart below.

Am I allowed to have an emotional support animal in my dorm?Yes
Am I allowed to bring an emotional support animal to class? No
How do I qualify for an emotional support animal? Request an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional
Can my existing pet be an emotional support animal?Yes
Who should I talk to if I’m interested in qualifying for an ESA?
Your current therapist or seek support from ESADoctors.com if you need help connecting with a LHCP