Miami U. mirrors rising trend of students using support animals

Miami University student Haley Canter is getting ready to leave her dorm and walk across the school’s Oxford campus.

Just as thousands of other fellow Miami students do daily, Canter slips on her backpack.

But then the sophomore adds something to help her stay calm and focused in dealing with the often pressurized world of college life: She places a cat on her shoulder.

And not just any feline.

Canter’s cat “Thea” is a university-approved “emotional support animal,” or ESA.

And at Miami — and increasingly at colleges across the nation — these emotional assistance animals are becoming a more common sight.

Thea “is a great support system to have her here with me,” says Canter as the cat draped across her upper shoulders nuzzles her neck during a mid-day break in classes.

Canter says she has periodic anxiety challenges as do some other students with an ESA at Miami. Still some other students with an ESA also cite difficulties at school due to depression as motivating their decision to apply for support animals.

Canter is among a growing number of Miami students who has provided documentation of a disability, allowing her to have an emotional support animal in her dorm room and on some parts of the campus grounds.

And though numbers are still limited to a few dozen at Miami, Canter is part of an increasing trend nationally as more students gain medical approval for using pets — most often dogs but also cats, rabbits, hamsters, ferrets and other creatures — to help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression and other ailments.

There are no comprehensive national studies on ESAs at colleges.

One recent, self-reporting, national survey, however, showed a 358 percent increase — from 2,400 to 11,000 — of college students using support animals.

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Emotional Support Animals (ESA) differ from service animals such a seeing-eye dogs under federal, state and local laws.

According to Miami’s ESA policy: “Emotional Support Animals are a category of animals that may provide necessary emotional support to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability that alleviates one or more identified symptoms of an individual’s disability, but which are not considered Service Animals ….

“Some ESAs are professionally trained, but in other cases ESAs provide the necessary support to individuals with disabilities without any formal training or certification. Dogs are commonly used as ESAs, but any animal may serve a person with a disability as an ESA.”

“ESA is prescribed by a health care or mental health professional to a student with a disability, and is an integral part of the student’s treatment plan.”

The Miami policy also only permits ESAs “in the owner’s residence hall room or individual bedroom in suite or apartment housing and cannot be taken into common areas, study areas, other student living areas, other residence halls, University apartments, dining halls or any other university building.”

“The ESA must be on a leash or in a cage /container at all times when outside the resident’s room. An ESA must never be allowed to roam freely or be left outside the owner’s room.”

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Hope Sweeney, accommodations coordinator for Miami’s Office of Student Disability Services, says the Butler County university is part of the upswing.

There are some federal laws regarding ESAs, but individual college, local municipality and state laws can differ.

Miami does not allow support animals in campus buildings besides student residence halls. And students approved for ESAs must follow a series of rules regarding cleaning and maintaining their dorm rooms. Roommates, especially those with allergies to animals, have rights, too, including alternative residence options available should they object.

Miami’s Oxford campus enrolls about 19,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

“We have about 36 ESAs on campus at this time,” Sweeney said, adding “it has really made a difference for students who require them.”

Sweeney says the expansion of support animals reflects Miami’s mission of providing “equal access for every student that is here.”

“When that means that there is an extra piece that a student needs, as long as we can show we are doing due diligence and covering our (safety and legal) bases, then absolutely we are going to provide that for that student,” Sweeney said.

Miami freshman Angela Ackerman is grateful for the option.

Ackerman found her first semester at Miami stressful. By the start of the second semester she had completed the required medical documentation, college legal forms and the animal health requirements — including vaccinations — to allow her to have a smallish dog — Raven — live with her on campus.

“Raven helps me get focused,” said Ackerman. “She relaxes me and improves my overall mood.”

Fellow Miami student Paige Hepner agreed, saying that having her dog — Arlo — “to welcome you when you come home after a hard day is very, very nice and heartwarming.”

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