By Talia Kirkland
Published on January 30, 2019
PHILADELPHIA – For Sam Hojnowski, her first year at La Salle University was a challenge. There were a few mornings where her fear kept her in bed.
But now, her 9-month-old cat, Kant, has helped ease those worries.
"Having an animal really helps my anxiety and my mental health," said the sophomore.
Emotionally supported animals continue to make headlines (think of the peacock and the flying turkey – and the squirrel?), Forcing airlines to revise their policies. Now university camps struggle with similar issues as the number of students who say they need animals that offer emotional support.
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Colleges have in the past a strict policy regarding pets. But they are starting to relax those rules to cater to a growing number of students who say they need their pets for health reasons.
Experts in the field of mental health care say that the trend has grown because the number of students with anxiety and depression continues to rise.
A study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that mental health problems among teenagers have almost tripled since 1985.
"We know from research that animals make you feel positive, they teach you to take care and to love, there is a routine of having an animal," said Dawn Soufleris, Vice President of Student Affairs at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "Why should not we welcome something that will help our students to be more successful?"
La Salle has 14 students who approved approved animals with emotional support: different dogs, two cats and a gecko. It is part of a growing number of universities that have set up a policy that allows these animals on campus.
Temple University has 20 students with emotionally supported animals living on campus.
"Generally, as we see students evolving," said T.J. Logan, vice president of Student Affairs at Temple University, "their needs are evolving too."
But critics say that the policy is ripe for abuse. A 95-pound pig, a few years ago an animal with emotional support at Washington State University, chewed on the carpet and destroyed furniture and doors.
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Phyllis Erdman, associate dean for academic affairs in Washington State, told Fox59 that colleges should impose training needs on animals and find the right balance between embracing animals with emotional support, while still taking into account students suffering from animal phobias and allergies.
"Colleges and universities have been lost to dealing with the situation," she said.
Little research has been done to support the benefits of animals with emotional support. Dr. Thea Gallagher, clinical director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the medical field actually knows very little about how or why animals seem to help individuals.
"There have been few studies, some have been carried out in the early 2000s and support the benefits of animals with emotional support in the life expectancy of the elderly, but very few follow," Gallagher said.
Nevertheless, universities feel legally obliged to comply with requests for emotional support from animals.
Yale University reluctantly imposed emotionally supportive animal policies because of the legality surrounding the Fair Housing Act, which states that "persons with disabilities can request reasonable accommodation for any service animal, including an emotionally supportive animal." The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability
"We are trying to implement it [the policy] as smoothly as possible here within the community of Yale by ensuring that our rules are fair, both for the people who ask the animals on campus and for all others who then have to live in a community and share the space with those animals, " said Sarah Chang, associate director of the Resource Office on Disabilities at Yale University.
If the universities do not allow the animals, they can face lawsuits.
In 2013, Grand Valley State University paid $ 40,000 in a settlement after a student sued the college for preventing a guinea pig with emotional support on campus. Two years later, two students received $ 140,000 in a settlement with the University of Nebraska in Kearney after being denied "reasonable accommodation" to keep two dogs with emotional support. A similar suit at Kent State University cost the school's $ 145,000 school year.
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Gallagher believes that as more students advocate this form of treatment and therapy, animals on university campuses will continue to grow.
"We know that there is something sensory to the touch that is useful to many people, and something about feeling less alone because we know that isolation can make people depressed," Gallagher said.
In 2020 La Salle University plans to launch a dog-friendly residence hall to better accommodate students with emotionally supported animals.
Talia Kirkland joined Fox News as a multi-media reporter in Philadelphia in 2017.