If you walked into the Grace Hopper College courtyard last year, you may have seen a cat on a leash. Last fall you might have seen a dog; this semester, there are two of them scurrying around Hopper.
These are emotional support animals. While Yale College does not allow students to live with pets on campus, University Policy 4400 allows students to live with emotional support animals, also called assistance animals, “on a case-by-case basis in a reasonable accommodation for a documented disability.”
Last year, there was one registered support animal on Yale’s campus, a kitten named Sawa. There are now 14 — a number that Sarah Chang, associate director of the Resource Office on Disabilities, expects to rise.
“If what has played out at other schools is true, then yes, [there will be] a lot more,” Chang said. “I do think we’re going to see a large increase in numbers, definitely.”
Emotional support animals require no training. They don’t even have to be dogs. Their purpose is to provide a therapeutic benefit through companionship. At Yale, there are emotional support dogs, emotional support cats and even an emotional support hedgehog. All members of the class of 2021 were asked on the first-year housing survey whether they would be agreeable to sharing a suite with a student who has an emotional support animal or service animal.
Still, despite the increase in the number of such animals, there is little scientific evidence to support their impact on humans, according to Molly Crossman GRD ’19, a Yale doctoral student in psychology who has studied the mental health benefits of people’s interactions with animals.
“There isn’t research that speaks directly to emotional support animals. There’s little directly on that that I’m aware of,” Crossman said. “Although we generally agree that science informs policy, often it just doesn’t work out like that.”
Yale and colleges across the country have adopted policies that allow emotional support animals — not necessarily because the science backs it up, but because the schools have to, in order to comply with the Fair Housing Act. The act states that “persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation for any service animal, including an emotional support animal.” The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination based on disability.
“Those two laws are basically the reason we weren’t inspired to create the program,” Chang explained. “We were mandated to create the program. All universities have to follow those laws.”
Violating the laws can be costly. In 2013, Grand Valley State University paid $40,000 in a settlement after a student sued the university for preventing her from keeping an emotional support guinea pig on campus. Two years later, two students received $140,000 in a settlement with the University of Nebraska at Kearney after they were denied “reasonable accommodations” to keep two emotional support dogs. A similar suit at Kent State University cost the school $145,000 the following year.
These settlements are commonly discussed at conferences with mental health educators, according to Jamie Axelrod, director of disability resources at Northern Arizona University, where more than 100 requests for emotional support animals are received each year. After these lawsuits in the early 2010s, many schools across the country, including Yale, created policies to specifically address emotional support animals.
“It was clear that in those cases that the HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] was looking for, maybe, something that didn’t require as much as proof as they would in accommodation in an academic setting,” Axelrod said. “A different standard of what is required.”
A DOG IN THE DORM
During reading period of her sophomore spring, Micaela Bullard Elias ’18 started getting serious gastrointestinal problems, and eventually decided to go to Yale Health. She took several tests for various physical illnesses, but they all turned up negative. She lost about 30 pounds in a month, and started to develop insomnia. She was given fluids through IV to keep her hydrated.
In the end, she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder that manifested physically.
Bullard started taking medicine, but it helped only so much. She would still wake up six or seven times a night, thinking she had to go to the bathroom, but really just suffering from symptoms of anxiety.
Bullard had seen Sally Weiner ’18, the first student with a registered emotional support animal, in the Hopper courtyard with her cat, Sawa. She thought an emotional support animal might improve her life and after a conversation with Weiner about how Sawa had helped her with anxiety, Bullard decided to go through the process herself.
Bullard got medical documentation from her psychologist that stated her diagnosis and explained how an emotional support animal, would help alleviate the impact of her condition as part of her treatment plan. She met with Chang, who explained the rules Bullard would have to follow. Her emotional support animal would only be allowed in specific places on campus, unlike service animals, and she couldn’t bring the dog to the library or class. Chang also discussed with Bullard the practical side of keeping an emotional support animal on campus: What would she do with the animal after graduation? What would she do with the animal over breaks? What would she do with the animal if she wanted to go to New York City for a weekend? The Resource Office on Disabilities expects students not to leave the animal with other people over night. Despite some lingering questions, Bullard decided that it would be worth it.
Bullard currently lives in a two-person Hopper College suite with her friend Tianyi Shi ’18. The two live with Bullard’s emotional support animal, an Italian Greyhound named Pascal, who likes to jump up and lick visitors on the face. He weighs 14 pounds and is about 16 inches tall.
Bullard said that since she got Pascal her symptoms have all but disappeared. She no longer wakes up several times in the middle of the night, and no longer vomits because of anxiety. She says her insomnia is gone. Her symptoms have improved so much that she plans to go off medication this summer, she says.
“I’ll still get anxious, you know, because everyone gets anxious at some point in time, but it hasn’t hindered my ability to study since I got him,” Bullard said. “I also just enjoy life more generally. Honestly I’m kind of surprised by the impact he’s had in terms of my emotional state and my ability to sleep. It’s a little crazy.”
Pascal has become a regular in the Hopper courtyard, often surrounded by students who want to play with him. Bullard’s room is also a popular destination for friends who feel comforted by her emotional support animal.
Despite what Bullard considers a success for her and others who are helped by her dog, she still worries about how other students are affected by Pascal. Students have complained about Pascal jumping in the courtyard. And after another emotional support dog moved into her entryway, Bullard received a complaint about barking.
“It can be really annoying, especially since another service animal moved into our entryway,” said a student who lives between the two emotional support animals and asked to remain anonymous. “They bark at each other and interact with each other, and then they will be barking for like 10 minutes on end … I imagine that people who don’t like dogs are not thrilled about it.”
The student added, however, that the dogs rarely bark at night, and that it’s nice having dogs around in the college. “I don’t think a minor annoyance to us is a significant enough reason to warrant people not always being comfortable,” the student said. “College is noisy. It’s fine.”
Some Hopper students now refer to Bullard’s entryway as “The Isle of Dogs,” a reference to the recently released Wes Anderson film. And while it’s important for Yale to support students who suffer from anxiety and allow comfort animals, one Hopper student said, the University should better regulate the dogs, which can be “loud and disruptive.”
“Just because he’s very beneficial to me doesn’t mean that he should be a detriment to other people,” Bullard said. “That’s something that worries me a lot.”
A BEST-CASE SCENARIO
According to a survey by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, in spring 2017, 20.6 percent of students have been treated by a professional for anxiety. In fall 2011, the number was 12 percent.
While emotional support animals are far from the only way to treat anxiety — they are usually recommended along with other treatment methods — psychiatrists have seen increasing demand from patients to write emotional support animal letters, a phenomenon that psychologists Jeffrey Younggren, Jennifer Boisvert and Cassandra Boness explore in the paper “Examining Emotional Support Animals and Role Conflicts In Professional Psychology.”
“Altogether, this media publicity and industry has implications for psychologists as they might be pressured by patient requests for a letter of evaluation in support of their need for an emotional support animal or certification of their pet,” the paper states.
The papers address many sites on the Internet that offer emotional support animal letters — required documentation for registering an animal as an emotional support animal — cheaply and in less than 24 hours, and how psychologists have to be careful when writing an emotional support animal letter.
Despite the complaints from some students, Bullard’s situation is practically a best-case scenario. She spent months researching what kind of animal she wanted in her dorm — looking for one that was hypoallergenic, didn’t smell and didn’t make much noise. She kept her suitemate in the loop the whole time, and arrived on campus with all the required forms completed and her dog fully vaccinated.
However, with many emotional support animals on the way, the potential for complaints will increase, and not all emotional support animal owners are as responsible as Bullard. At Washington State University, a student brought a 95-pound pig into her room, and it chewed up the room’s carpeting, furniture and closet doors, according to the New York Times. And Crossman said there is reason for concern that those who suffer from anxiety could have their symptoms exacerbated by having to take care of an animal.
A dog owner herself, Chang is aware that there are almost no studies proving the efficacy of emotional support animals. But Yale, like every other university in the country, is required by law to allow them.
“Yale can’t really do anything to prevent controversy because we have to follow the law,” Chang said. “We’re trying to implement [the policy] as smoothly as possible here within the Yale community by working to ensure that our rules are fair both for the people who are requesting the animals on campus and for everyone else who then has to live in a community and share the space with those animals.”
So far, the policy has worked relatively smoothly. And while there’s no solid scientific evidence backing the use of emotional support animals, Crossman warned against citing the lack of data to prevent people from getting emotional support animals.
“It’s probably even more important, from my perspective, to make sure we’re not discriminating against students who have mental illnesses,” Crossman said. “Right now, the law says we have to protect this right, so if students are meeting this standard, my impression is that we should meet that standard across the board.”
Jacob Sweet | firstname.lastname@example.org