Accommodating Comfort Pets on College Campuses: Literature Review

Executive Summary

Support animals, comfort pets, service animals or assistance animals; these terms are beginning to be used commonly within residence halls, disability offices on college campuses, and within universities as a whole across America. These animals act as aids for individuals with disabilities. Many homes today have pets and some pets are asked for by children to have a companion or friend. Some children actually suffer from post-traumatic stress and other forms of depression and they are in need of assistance animals to calm them when they are having a stressful day at school. More than 75 percent of American children own a pet, also about nineteen million students are admitted into a post-secondary institution (Huss, 2012). However, there is a difference between a pet, an assistance animal, and a service animal. A pet is any domesticated or tamed animal that is kept as a companion and cared for affectionately. An assistance animal is the overarching term that refers to both service animals as well as support animals. An assistance animal is an animal that either works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. It also provides emotional or other type of support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.  Assistance animals are emotional support animals and are not limited like service animals. Service animals are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities (and are only dogs, in some cases, miniature horses). Americans with Disability Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination of students or persons based on disabilities (Section 504 of the rehabilitation Act of 1973). The problem that will be addressed within the policy brief is the lack of accommodations for students with assistance and service animals. 

Administrators and university staff have to be careful to keep their institutions out of court and from lawsuits based on the discrimination of comfort pets, assistance animals, and service dogs/animals. Von Bergen, (2015) said “mentally disabled students have increasingly petitioned colleges with no-pet policies to permit them to bring their animals on campus because they need a companion or emotional support animal to make college life easier and to reduce their stress, loneliness, depression, and/or anxiety” Campuses that are refusing and flying the ‘no pet rules’ are getting sued and exposing themselves to lawsuits. Increasing numbers of students are requesting accommodations for emotional support animals (ESAs) in higher education settings. Since the legislation pertaining to this type of service animal differs from the laws governing disability service animals, colleges and universities are faced with developing new policies and guidelines (Kogan, Schaefer, Erdman, & Schoenfeld-Tacher, 2016, P. 1).

Service animals are allowed to a certain degree on some college campuses, emotional support animals are minimally allowed in student housing and student jobs, but pets are not allowed in any campus location. Von Bergen (2015), defined service animals as “any dog [some exceptions for a miniature horse] that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability”. In contrast, an emotional support animal (ESA) also provides assistance related to a psychological disability, but is not required to have any specific training (Schoenfeld-Tacher, Hellyer, Cheung, & Kogan, 2017, P. 2).  


Von Bergen (2015) said, “For centuries people have noted that animals can have a positive influence on human functioning, and conventional wisdom has long supported the use of animals in promoting human wellbeing (p. 18). Knowing how stressful the college experience can be for college students, it is important for administrators in higher education to allow the accommodation of assistance animals, comfort pets and service dogs on campus. The rate of mental health cases amongst students on campuses continue to increase and more students are suffering from depression due to various academic or family related issues. Therefore, having assistance animals or comfort pets to soothe the emotions of depressed students on campus will aid retention and graduation rate of college students. This will also keep the institution away from lawsuits regarding ADA regulations or the lack there of.

Although higher institutions have counseling services for students, science has shown that assistance animals and comfort pets may contribute a great deal to ameliorating depression issues in students on campuses. Some students have issues with handling stress, depression and anxiety. According to Adams, Clark, Crowell, Duffy, Green, McEwen, Wrape, & Hammonds (2017), 100,736 students at the 139 colleges and universities contributing to their report sought counseling during the 2014-2015 academic year, with 79,331 students attending at least one counseling appointment (p. 50).  According to these researchers, (56.91%) of the students had anxiety issues, (46.63%) of the students had stress issues while (45.93%) of the students had depression issues. 

Research has also shown that students coming for counseling increased by 29.6% while the amount of students scheduling appointments for counseling also increased 38.4% (Adams et al, p. 50). They further found out that in the past one year, 58.4% of students complained of overwhelming anxiety, 36.6% complained of difficulty performing academic tasks due to depression, and 9.8% considered suicide.

Considering these facts about the challenges students face regarding anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress and depression on campus, it is important that administrators create a policy to accommodate comfort pets on campuses. Although counseling centers existence on college campuses, it is apparent that there are more and more students who are requesting to come to campus with their comfort pets to sooth their stress, anxiety and depression issues. Some students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders and need these assistance animals to balance out stress in their day-to-day activities on campus. It is quite obvious that a student dealing with any of these issues of anxiety, depression or stress cannot cope well with academic rigors or the complex circumstances a college student faces in college. Research has shown that assistance animals and comfort pets make a great impact on psychological and emotion well-being of college students. Therefore, higher educational institutions should accommodate the policy of comfort pets being allowed on campus and in residence halls.


“Given the slightly overlapping terminology and recent proliferation of service dogs and emotional support animals (ESAs), stories abound of people taking advantage of unclear policies” (Schoenfeld-Tacher, Hellyer, Cheung & Kogan, 2017, p. 4). To discourage college students from taking advantage of calling their pets’ assistance animals, emotional support animals or service animals, administrators in colleges can take the following steps:

  • Limit the time spent on the issue (emotional support animals) by requiring students to take as much of the responsibility as possible.
  • Requiring students to register their animals in advance and provide all records relating to the animal prior to the animal coming on campus to discourage students from making last minute decisions to keep an animal.
  • The use of “comfort pet councils” made up of students and faculty members that enforce written guidelines puts some of the responsibility on students rather than just administrators.
  • Enforce that students with comfort pets follow-up on vaccinations and sterilizations.

(Huss, 2012, p. 297, 298, 299)


At several universities around the United States of America, university housing officials and faculty have denied students the right to bring their emotional support animal to school with them. In Leland v Portland State University (2012), Cindy Leland (a hearing impaired student) was denied the right to reside in the residence hall with her “service dog” and to attend classes with the “service dog” as needed. Cindy brought suit against the university because they failed to provide appropriate accommodations. In February of 2014 a Consent Decree was signed and the university was ordered to pay $142,500 to Cindy and the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. An additional $19,000 was allocated as a fund for Students with Disabilities and Service or Assistance Animals to be overseen by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon. The fund will help to support other students who may have been treated inversely as a result of their disabilities. A similar situation occurred at The University of Nebraska at Kearney when a student was denied the ability to bring their “therapy dog” to the residence hall United States of America v. University of Nebraska at Kearney (2013). The university stated that there was a no-pets policy. A federal judge determined that university housing is a “dwelling” as it is defined under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Therefore, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) should apply to college and university housing, including residence halls. It was ruled that colleges and universities must permit assistance animals in university housing. University of Nebraska at Kearney settled with the Department of Justice for $140,000. Also at in 2010, Kent State University denied a request to keep a “therapy dog” in university owned housing United States of America v. Kent State University, et al. (2016). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began an investigation and charged Kent State with discrimination. The Department of Justice (DOJ) brought lawsuit against the university and they settled for $145,000. They also had to enforce the policy on reasonable accommodations and assistance animals in university housing. 


Adams, T; Clark, C; Crowell, V; Du y, K; Green, M; McEwen, S; Wrape, A; & Hammonds, F (2017)  The mental health benefits of having dogs on college campuses, Modern Psychological Studies 22 (2). retrieved from: 

Aimee C. Adams, Bruce S. Sharkin, Jennifer J. Bottinelli. (2017) The Role of Pets in the Lives of College Students: Implications for College Counselors. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 31(4), pages 306-324. 

Huss, R. J. (2012). Canines on Campus: Companion Animals at Postsecondary Educational Institutions. Missouri Law Review, 77417.

Kogan, L, R., Schaefer, K., Erdman, P., & Schoenfeld – Tacher, R. (2016). University counseling centers’ perceptions and experiences pertaining to emotional support animals. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 30 (4), 268-283. doi: org/10.1080/87568225.2016.1219612

Leland v. Portland State University, U.S. District Court, District of Oregon (2012)

Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., Hellyer, P., Cheung, L., & Kogan, L. (2017). Public Perceptions of Service Dogs, Emotional Support Dogs, and Therapy Dogs. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 14(6), doi:10.3390/ijerph14060642

Von Bergen, C. W. (2015). Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals, and Pets on Campus. Administrative Issues Journal: Education, Practice, And Research, 5(1), 15-34.

United States of America v. Kent State University, et al., 1-29 (United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio Eastern Division January 4, 2016).

United States of America v. University of Nebraska at Kearney, et al., 940 F. Supp.2d 974 (2013)

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