Five Things I Learned Living with an Emotional Support Animal in College
Emotional support animals are a rather controversial topic, especially in regards to allowing them to fly on airlines, but having an ESA as part of a mental health treatment plan has been immensely beneficial for me. For my freshman year of college, I left my dog at home and moved hundreds of miles away. I had always had a very strong bond with my dog, Roxie, and a connection with animals in general. I worked at a doggy daycare for the ten years leading up to college, and suddenly being dog-free was jarring. At the end of my freshman year, I decided to apply for Roxie to live in my dorm the next year as part of my treatment for severe anxiety, and my college approved the accommodation. I am not finishing my second year of college, and having Roxie in my dorm has taught me a few important lessons.
Being responsible for another life is very serious, and anyone in a similar position to mine needs to deeply consider this. Taking care of Roxie at school is very different than living with her at home. At college, I am Roxie’s sole caretaker, so her needs and wellbeing are all my responsibility. I knew this before I brought her to college, but I did not realize how different caring for her would be when I did not have my mom to let her outside in the morning or to feed her when I was going to be gone all day. I wake up at 7:30 every day to walk Roxie because she needs to eat and to go outside. Some days I do not want to, but I do not have a choice because Roxie cannot feed and walk herself.
Having someone dependent on me means that, at times, I need to make difficult choices likeleaving early from events or hanging out with my friends because I need to go to my dorm to feed Roxie dinner and walk her. I do not regret this added responsibility at all, but it is also a significant part of my life. I always need to be considering Roxie’s wellbeing and factoring it into my day so that I can be there to feed her, walk her, and play with her enough at the proper times. I will choose to do homework at my dorm instead of the library, my preferred location, because Roxie is there, and I do not want her to be alone all day. On days when I need to go to the library, I will stop studying to come back to my dorm to take care of Roxie and then, perhaps, return to the library if I need to study more.
Emotional support animals are legitimate and can help people with a range of disorders. I most knew this already, but actually having Roxie with me at school has helped my anxiety in ways that other treatments do not. She is able to calm me and help me feel less anxious at times that only she could. No other animal could help me like having Roxie does because she and I have a connection and she understands my anxiety from years of living with me. When I am deeply anxious, I will try to match my breathing to hers in order to slow down my breath and not hyperventilate. Roxie normally does not enjoy being held for a long time, but she never moves when I need her to help me breathe. Also, when I am very anxious in my sleep, I will wake up to her laying on my feet as if to remind me that she is there. These are only two of the ways that having Roxie helps me, but I have found many more throughout this year.
Not everyone understands or agrees with emotional support animals. Before bringing Roxie, I did not realize that many people had no idea what an emotional support animal was or the difference between one and a service animal. Most days, I am told at least once in the elevator that people did not know that we can have pets in my dorm. We cannot. I then must explain that she is an emotional support animal and has been approved by the disability center to live with me. Usually, people seem unsure of what that means exactly but do not ask further. Other times, people ask if she is a service animal, which to anyone familiar with service animals, is obvious that she is not. Explaining to strangers that I have an emotional support animal can be awkward sometimes, but I have learned to just let it go because I would much rather be asked five times a day if my dog is a pet than not have her at all. I have also encountered a fair amount of hostility from people who think that emotional support animals are fake and that having Roxie has no legitimate benefit for me beyond that of any other pet. I experience this most often at airports when I am flying with Roxie and often from airline staff themselves. I do not dwell on these type of comments because I know that Roxie significantly reduces my anxiety, and I do not want to spend energy focusing on their comments that are clearly uninformed and wrong.
The processes surrounding emotional support animals are inconsistent and unregulated. No official emotional support animal registry exists, and many websites falsely claim to be registries online and sell people identification, like vests, that they do not need. I was completely unaware of how open-ended the emotional support animal system was before I began the process with my college, which has a confusing system itself. Every airline has different requirements for ESAs that are flying, and this paperwork must be completed each time. In addition, a valid healthcare provider must recommend that someone needs as ESA for a person to have one, but no official list of qualifying disorders exists, and any healthcare provider qualifies as being able to write the letter. This system can be extremely frustrating sometimes, especially because many people abuse the system to claim that their pet is an ESA so that the animal can fly for free or have some other benefit. This only hurts people with legitimate ESAs because it makes everyone look like they are scamming the system when a fake ESA misbehaves or hurts someone.