You and your emotional support animal (ESA) have federal housing rights to live in a dorm room together. However, ESA rights can be taken away if your ESA creates situations that cause other students to be unable to study or sleep or if your ESA attacks them (even if they provoked your companion).

An ESA is not a service dog with additional access rights, so you, as a responsible pet parent, need to take extra steps to ensure your ESA is acclimated and adept to dorm life.  

One example is that a service animal can attend class while your ESA will likely be required to remain in the dorm room. Although your ESA dog would look cute next to you in a lab wearing “doggles” and protective gear, your emotional support dog is not a service dog and will likely not be allowed to attend. And remaining in the dorm room without you can cause anxiety in an animal that is not acclimated correctly.

Here are some common issues college and high school students in dormitories face and ideas for alleviating the situation so everyone can cohabitate and live together peacefully.

Animals With Separation Anxiety

Emotional support animals are equally attached to you as you are to them. When you go to work or class, they may feel lonely and nervous. Their separation anxiety in a dorm can elicit specific behaviors:

  • Urinating or defecating on the floor
  • Barking, meowing, or calling for attention
  • Clawing, chewing, and scratching furniture and doors

There are ways to help reduce the separation anxiety your pet feels while you’re in class:

  • Get an app-controlled treat dispenser. If your neighbors say they’re acting up, you can dispense a bone or chew that may help to calm them down. However, this could train them to act out in order to get a treat, so use it sparingly.
  • Building a tolerance for the triggering effect can help reduce their separation anxiety. For example, the animal may associate you with wearing a backpack as a signal you’re leaving. Wear it while you play or go for a walk, before going away for shorter times, and even just while having some cuddle time in the dorm room. The goal is to make the backpack not be a signal that they’ll be alone and alleviate the stress your emotional support animal feels in response.
  • Leave a blanket with your scent in their space, or take short naps with your ESA in their pet bed. Your scent can be calming and reduce stress for both dogs and cats (this study from Science Direct shows cats do calm down with their caretaker’s smell).  
  • Try aromatherapy. Yes, according to this study, specific scents like lavender and vanilla can produce a calming effect for cats and dogs.
Tips for Having Your ESA in Your Dorm Room
Emotional support animals with separation anxiety may act up in unexpected ways while staying alone in the dorm room.

Allergies in Other Students

You cannot fix a person’s allergies, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be a good neighbor and proactive at alleviating their symptoms. Being a good neighbor is part of dorm life, so take the extra steps to be nice to your fellow students:

  • Stock up on popular allergy medications and find out what other students prefer. You can share as needed.
  • Invest in a good air purifier with allergy and dander filters and let it run in your room.
  • Have a lint roller ready to remove excess animal hair from your clothing so they’re not reminded of the emotional support animal.
  • As long as it is healthy for the animal, try bathing more frequently to reduce dander.
  • Vacuum more often than usual to suck up the dander and fur, and invest in one with a HEPA filter.

Overstimulation From Neighbors and Noise

Unlike in a home, dorm rooms may have loud music blaring, students roaming the halls, parties in the next room, and other stimuli that pets need to adjust to. The overstimulation can cause them to be afraid, bark, and exhibit other behaviors mentioned above.

You can always try leaving calming music on, but that won’t stop other students from being loud in the hallway. Instead, be proactive in the dorm room:

  • Put out pee pads if your emotional support animal tends to lose their hold when stimulated and nervous.
  • If you know it will be louder, like on the weekend, and you won’t be home, leave out toys that can last and stimulate the pet positively for a few hours. Kongs with peanut butter or remote and time-controlled pounce and chase toys for cats can provide a needed distraction.

Barking, Meowing, and General Noises

Aside from fish, animals make noises that can and will disrupt others trying to study or sleep. It’s part of life and something you must work on to keep your ESA housing rights. If triggers include hearing other people because the emotional support animal wants to play, is curious, or is protecting their home, dorms will be notorious for noise responses.

You can try various things, but pay attention to what works and rotate them if the effect wears off:

  • Reward the animal with treats and pets once they stop.
  • Hire a trainer to evaluate the cause of the noise and learn how to train the animal to no longer react or have a nonverbal reaction, like rubbing against you, when it needs something.
  • Make sure they’re getting enough exercise. Take your dog for extra walks and runs. Dorm rooms are tiny and not built for running. Cats may need to pounce and chase toys or a stroller to get fresh air to cope with the small dorm room.
    • This study used counterconditioning when the barking was from multiple dogs, such as in a kennel setting (similar to a dorm with dogs that cause each other to bark). When the dogs were exercised, the total volume decreased.

Emotional support animals are a legitimate way to reduce emotional stresses and disorders for college and high school students like yourself. That is why you and your emotional support animal have housing rights in dormitories. But that doesn’t mean their presence should impact others. Try the above ideas and find solutions that work, as dorm life is about the community that both you and your ESA should become a part of and not cast aside from.