Students should not abuse the Emotional Support Animal system

The holiday season can be a challenging time for college students, especially those who struggle with their mental health. Personally, when the calendar turns to November, there is nothing I’d like more than to drive 3 hours home and cuddle with my dog. Many students miss their furry friends so much that they consider adopting one of their own to relieve homesickness while they’re away at college.

Though it is noble to want to save an animal from life in a shelter and possible euthanasia, it is irresponsible for students to continue to assume that pets are not a full-time job. It is especially irresponsible to register an untrained animal as an emotional support animal in order to circumvent apartment pet policies.

Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, can be wonderful resources for those who are suffering from mental disorders. Veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder may find ESAs to be particularly comforting companions during their transitions to civilian life.

Petting your dog is even scientifically proven to have tangible benefits; a 2001 American Heart Association study found that pet ownership can both reduce stress and increase oxytocin levels in the brain. Animal interaction can even help reduce hypertension. Therapy animals are excellent healing tools, provided you have the right resources to train and care for them.

In recent years, college students have been circumventing apartment pet policies by obtaining ESA IDs or certificates for their pets. Many of these students do not have legitimate reasons for owning an ESA and simply desire the companionship that comes with pet ownership. 

Wanting a pet is fine. Wanting to save an animal from being put down is even better. Accomplishing this by keeping a pet cooped up in a small apartment not designed for containing animals for hours on end is not OK.

However, it is unfair to insinuate that all college students who have obtained an illegitimate ESA license are irresponsible pet owners. Some students have easier schedules and are not away from home for longer than a few hours and have the time and resources to make sure that their animals are living happy, healthy lives. That being said, ESAs that have not been properly trained also pose a threat to the service animal community. Keeping an illegitimate ESA in an apartment is one thing. Bringing your illegitimate ESA to places where it does not belong because you can is quite another.

Dogs that have not been specifically trained as service animals may behave unpredictably. Certified ESAs have fewer legal privileges than service animals and are not technically allowed to go everywhere with their owners like service dogs are, but they have become more socially acceptable in recent years. Because of this, those with ESA licenses are often afforded the same privileges as those with service dogs.

Untrained ESAs that are brought into environments with other animals may attack or be disruptive to the general public, giving a bad name to those who genuinely need service animals, including ESAs. Abusing the system for your personal gain hurts everyone in the long run.

UA students who want animal companionship or to help shelter pets have plenty of options that don’t involve straining their resources for an animal that deserves better. The Tuscaloosa Metro Animal Shelter needs your donations. Currently, the shelter is holding a competition with the Lee County Humane Society to raise money alongside Iron Bowl festivities. Volunteers are always needed to clean and play with the animals at the shelter. Monetary donations ensure that the animals there can lead happy and healthy lives until they are adopted by individuals and families that have the capacity to care for them. 

If you believe that you may be in legitimate need of an ESA, UA provides counseling services that can direct you to the correct resources. Your impact on people struggling with their mental health and animals in need of stable homes is exactly what you make it. Make sure it is a responsible one.

Emma Royal is a junior majoring in journalism. Her column runs biweekly. 

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