Emotional support animals are growing in number at Ramapo

It may seem like emotional support animals (ESAs) have popped up out of nowhere in the past few years. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened mental health crisis that emerged with it, ESAs have served to help ward off loneliness and reduce stress, according to a 2021 study

There has been much confusion over the years about ESAs and how they differ from service animals, which are defined as dogs or miniature horses that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

ESAs, however, are animals — whether dogs, cats, rodents or more exotic types — that offer therapeutic benefits to a person with a mental or psychiatric disability, but aren’t specifically trained. They fall under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which requires housing providers to accommodate ESAs for people with disabilities in housing that doesn’t typically allow animals. This includes college dorms.

Ramapo’s Office of Specialized Services (OSS) is experienced with handling both service animals and ESAs. Director of OSS David Nast estimates that OSS has approximately 30 ESAs and 4 service dogs registered this year.

“This accommodation… is far from our most common, but it is one of our more complicated ones because of the elements that are involved,” Nast said in an interview with The Ramapo News. “We have about 640 students affiliated with the office, so that idea of 30 to 40 individuals with animals, it’s definitely a small number… but it takes a disproportionate amount of time.”

Registering an ESA with OSS can be a lengthy process that requires the office to coordinate with students’ mental health providers, suitemates and the Office of Residence Life (ORL). Service animals are not required to be registered, but OSS recommends it, especially if the student is living on campus, to avoid any confusion with the Office of Public Safety or ORL. 

Graduate student Helen Witte has a four-year-old service dog, Vega, that she got during her senior year at Ramapo. Vega is her first dog, so there was a learning curve, but OSS helped Witte acclimate.

Emotional support animals help owners reduce anxiety and lowers blood pressure. Photo courtesy of Alexander Grey, Pexels

“OSS provided me with some information in regards to my rights on campus with a service dog. They helped me adjust to having a service dog in a dorm,” she said in an email. “I did encounter some issues with my roommates my senior year because of Vega, but we [were] able to work it out with my trainer and OSS.”

According to Nast, OSS receives a couple of complaints about service animals and ESAs per semester. While he shared about a few instances where animals have caused thousands of dollars worth of damage in dorms, those are rare occurrences.

“That gets back to the owner… not abiding by what the expectations are,” he said.

Senior Frank Kouadio has had his two-year-old cat Cléo as an ESA on campus for the past two years. Currently, he lives in Laurel Hall with her and has experienced few issues. 

“She definitely helps out in high-stress situations… We’ll definitely comfort each other,” he said in an interview. “Luckily, everybody’s chill with her being in the common area. She’ll just like jump on the window ledge or mess with posters.”

Kouadio emphasized how OSS, and specifically Assistant Director for Assistive Technology & Accommodation Services Missy Long, facilitated the experience of bringing Cléo to campus and that there has been consistent contact throughout the year. “She’ll kind of send emails periodically, just checking in and stuff,” he said.

OSS is open to accommodating many kinds of animals under various circumstances, but at times, it does have to deny students’ requests. Usually, issues arise around the type of ESA a student wants to bring, whether it’s not a typically domesticated animal, an allergy risk for a suitemate or requires a set-up that poses a fire hazard. Other times, it comes down to the number, size or age of the animal.

“Our concern is: ‘What then if it doesn’t work out?’” Nast said. “There’s the potential of us approving your general request for an [ESA], but denying the specific animal.”




Featured photo courtesy of Meruyert Gonullu, Pexels