Support animals a growing trend on campus


Shelbie Heath

Abigail Turner and her support goldendoodle Daisy take a break on an evening walk on the WKU campus.

Jake Moore, a WKU student, and his cat, MewMew, live on the WKU campus.

When Jake Moore, a senior at WKU, sits down in his college apartment after a stressful day at school, his six-month old gray shorthair cat nestles against his leg and all that stress melts away.

MewMew is Moore’s emotional support animal.

Studies have found that ESAs help those with mental illness. Previously, some mental health professionals were hesitant to recommend ESAs for treatment because there wasn’t any solid proof that it worked, and didn’t have enough research on the effectiveness of ESAs.

The University of Toledo published a study, led by Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, in the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin detailing that ESAs help those with chronic mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Students like Moore already knew the power of animals. Moore said he contacted his primary care provider and asked about an ESA.

“[I] just said, ‘Hey, I think I’d benefit mentally if I had an animal companion, because I would have something, you know, just a presence in the apartment when nobody else is there,’” Moore said.

There are a lot of students who are considering getting a support animal, hoping it will benefit them dealing with the stress of school, family and mental health. However, that doesn’t come without some issues.

Cheating the system?

Universities and colleges around the country are seeing an influx of students requesting ESAs from their counselors.

Karl Laves, associate director of the WKU Counseling Center, discusses emotional support animals with students in the Xposure High School Journalism Workshop on Monday, June. 13.

Karl Laves, associate director of the WKU Counseling Center, has had several cases where students requested an ESA, but explained the counseling center doesn’t have the power to do that.

“And the argument was, well, you would know best if someone would benefit from having a pet?” Laves said of the belief that therapists should recommend ESAs. “No, we wouldn’t. Why do you think we would know that? I’d have to know you for six months without a pet. And then I’d have to watch you for six months with a pet to see if it made a difference.”

Laves has expressed his frustrations about students asking for ESAs. “And then they’ll say ‘and I heard maybe an ESA would be a good thing. So, can I get a letter?’ Oh, you didn’t want to talk to me about you. You wanted the letter.”

Additionally, individuals have taken advantage of the fact that ESAs have more rights than regular pets. According to Delta Airlines, in 2018 there was an 84% increase in “animal incidents since 2016, including urination, defecation and biting.” Most of these cases involve ESAs, and it’s a growing problem with not just airlines but businesses around the country.

When asked about people who “cheat the system,” Abigail Turner, who has a goldendoodle on campus, was strictly against it, specifically the risk of them distracting service dogs.

“It’s very harmful not only to other people, but it can literally cause someone to go into a medical episode,” Turner said. “So like, if your dog is distracting a service dog in training since they aren’t fully trained, it can cause them to miss an alert for the handler, and then that handler can go into a medical episode and they’ll have to go to the hospital.”

Mental health and ESAs

ESAs can help for various reasons. But for Moore and Turner, they say their ESAs really help with their mental health issues.

Moore suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and loneliness. MewMew offers the support Moore says that he needs to cope.

“So it’s kind of just like having a presence because it’s not a person that I can converse with her,” Moore said, “but it’s kind of like, oh, yeah, I’m not alone in this apartment. You know, there’s something here that depends on me, and something that I care for. So it’s just like a good feeling to have that.”

Frequently, ESAs and service dogs get confused. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the key difference between ESAs and service animals is that ESAs are not trained to do specific tasks. Also, dogs and miniature horses are the only animals that can be service animals whereas ESAs can be any animal.

Daisy, the goldendoodle that belongs to Abigail Turner, rests during a walk around the WKU campus.

Turner also deals with anxiety, depression and loneliness, among other things. Her ESA is a service dog in training, so Daisy can notice potentially self-destructive behaviors.

“She is trained that whenever I start scratching my leg, she will stop me,” Turner said. “So that’s helped a lot because it’s a form of self-harm, so having someone or something there to help with that really just helps.”

The studies support these testimonies, too. According to a study conducted by the University of Toledo, after 10-minute periods of bonding with an ESA, researchers found, “a consistent pattern of higher amounts of the bonding hormone oxytocin and lower amounts of the stress hormone cortisol.”

ESAs are helping their owners cope with mental challenges in various ways, from cuddling to monitoring for destructive behaviors. ESAs provide unconditional support and unyielding loyalty – and sometimes a gentle nudge to interact with other people.

“And also having any ESA, whenever you take them outside, a lot of people talk to you and like, ‘Oh, can I pet her,’ things like that,” Turner said. “So, it gets you out of your comfort zone in a way that you have to interact with people that you normally wouldn’t interact with.”