Every day the moment the graduate student Caitlin Hicks returns home at her apartment it is her very first impression of hearing the roar of Theo Pomeranian, her pet, and pet that provides emotional support. Theo’s barking might sound too loud, or a nuisance for certain people but for Caitlin it’s an important reminder that she’s not the only one. It’s like having a second life force inside the room.
“I would say like a year ago I went through many months of like long-term dissociation and he was just really helpful for grounding me back in reality,” Hicks explained. “because when you’re all by yourself inside a living space… it’s impossible to be certain that everything is true. You can use every grounding technique you want, but all you have to count on is you. With him in the room I’m like “okay that’s great. I’m able to trust him.”
Hicks is an undergraduate at The University of Alabama, where increasing numbers of her peers are receiving emotional support animals similar to Theo. Based on the information provided by the residential office at the campus, the number of students who request emotional animals for their dorms has more than increased by a third from 2019. Housing received 36 requests this year, and 70 by 2021. Other schools are also seeing similar changes as well, with that of the University of Arizona reportedly seeing an all-time high of more than 70 emotional support animals dorms on campus.
Hicks was able to get Theo accepted for use as an emotional assistance animal by her therapist in the year 2015, and this validation allows him to stay with her throughout her college housing. Hicks states that her approval has helped her save thousands of dollars worth of pet expenses However, she believes that the greatest benefit was the way Theo assists her in calming down after a tiring day of school.
“When you’re on campus all day and you’re stressed and you have all this work that you’re doing and then coming home and immediately feeling joy because like your pet is there to greet you,” Hicks stated. “just the immediate help with stress and comfort… has just been extremely helpful as a student.”
Alicia Browne is the director of Housing Administration at UA. She says that the procedure to get approval for the dorms requires an animal veterinarian who writes recommendations and responds to questions regarding the animal. Housing then approves the animals that are deemed to meet certain requirements. Animals that have been approved for emotional support are allowed to live in all dorms. However, access to campus buildings is not allowed because emotional support animals are not service animals.
“A service dog is trained specifically to do work or tasks, so a seeing eye dog, a dog that alerts a diabetic to a drop in blood sugar,” Browne stated. “An assistance dog may be needed by a person because of disabilities and is specially trained to perform specific tasks. An emotional support dog is used for comfort and support. It could help reduce anxiety, however, it’s not always trained to perform any kind of job. They are therefore different, and are legally covered by various laws.”
The law that permits emotional support animals to be kept in campus dorms, as well as apartments, is called the Fair Housing Act. The law states that Americans are allowed to keep these animals as long as they have been approved by a physician regardless of the facility’s pet policy.
Dr. Patricia Pendry is a professor of human development at Washington State University. She has been studying human-animal relationships for a long time and has stated that her research suggests that animals are able to help decrease stress.
“We found that a mere 10 minutes of interacting with either a dog or a cat led to a reduction of a stress hormone called cortisol,” Pendry explained. “and this reduction was significant… So we felt that this was a good, rational reason to say that petting and interacting with a dog or a cat would reduce stress.”
The data was released in the study Pendry conducted in the year 2019 on college students who interact with animals. The study was geared towards college students since this age group is believed to be prone to stress. She also believes the general decline in the mental health of students in college is an important reason for the increased demand of emotional assistance animals grown at UA as well as elsewhere.
Pendry added that in these circumstances the animal’s welfare needs to be considered.
“There’s the idea that it’s okay, we need to extend this as far we are able to. We must extend the times for treatment and interactions and allow animals to be on campus more frequently,” Pendry said. “And I think we should be aware. It’s always beneficial to replicate the research. It’s also an excellent idea to look into the ways that scaling up these interventions could alter the interactions, especially for the well-being of the animals.”
Hicks explained that she has seen the rise in emotional animals that support people as a reaction to the pandemic.
“Obviously like the pandemic rocked to everybody’s world,” Hicks declared. “and so, you know, anxiety, depression, mental illness is up so high, like needing emotional support animals is probably something that is more appealing to people because like they need that comfort and they need that assistance.”
Hicks claims she’ll soon be moving into Atlanta, Georgia and Theo are moving with her. While the prospect of moving makes her anxious but she is confident that she will have Theo to keep her in check.
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