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Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) in Student Housing

For many, the transition to life as a college student can be a tough one. New environments, routines, and stressors can make for a challenging adjustment. Individuals with disabilities may face additional hurdles, some of which can be lessened with the aid of an emotional support animal (ESA). If you are an individual with a disability who uses an ESA, you may be wondering how and if you can bring your support animal with you to college. Below are some answers to commonly asked questions.


What is the difference between an emotional support animal and a service animal?
A service animal is a dog or, in some cases, a miniature horse that is individually trained to perform a specific task to assist an individual with a disability. That task must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Tasks performed by a service animal can include retrieving dropped items, reminding a person to take medication, or performing actions to calm an individual having an anxiety attack. Service animals are protected by both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

In contrast, emotional support animals do not require specific training and do not need to perform specific tasks related to an individual’s disability. However, ESAs may be part of a medical treatment plan and may help with depression, anxiety, or other disabilities.  Emotional support animals are not service animals. They are protected in housing by the FHA.


Are emotional support animals allowed on a college campus?
Under the FHA, an individual with a qualified disability may be allowed to bring their ESA to live with them in their student housing.

The FHA makes it illegal for housing providers, including college and university housing, to discriminate against persons with disabilities. The FHA defines discrimination as “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”  Allowing an individual with disabilities’ ESA into a university residence hall often qualifies as a reasonable accommodation. This reasonable accommodation applies to all areas of the housing where persons are normally allowed to go. The FHA accommodation does not apply to classrooms or other areas of campus, outside of housing, where animals would otherwise be prohibited. In contrast, service animals protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act would be allowed in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go.


How do I get a reasonable accommodation?
Under the FHA, a college or university does not have to automatically allow emotional support animals into residence halls. The student needs to first request an accommodation to the school’s “no pets” policy. The school then has the right to require verification of the need for the emotional support animal if the need for the animal is not readily apparent.  The verification would need to establish that the student has a disability, the need for the accommodation, and information showing that the accommodation is related to the student’s disability.

Many colleges have a designated office to provide services for students with disabilities and an ADA coordinator that may be able to assist or provide guidance in the accommodation request process.


Are there situations in which my ESA would not be allowed into university housing?
A college or university does not have to allow an emotional support animal if it would pose an undue financial and administrative burden or if it would fundamentally alter the nature of the provider’s operations. An emotional support may also be denied if the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. However, the risk must be significant and immediately identified, and must be based on objective evidence, not fear or opinions. This must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Further, under the FHA, the student using the emotional support animal would be required to have control over the animal. And, while the student may not be charged an extra fee for their emotional support animal, the student would be responsible for property damage caused by the animal to the same extent that other individuals would be held responsible.

Note: This information is intended for educational purposes only; it is not legal advice.