Liv Tempesta feels like she doesn’t have any emotions.
That comes with the territory when you’re coping with
19-year-old sophomore at Temple University last year
tried a new type of treatment: a cat. Skittles, her
8-year-old tabby and her first emotional-support animal,
lived on campus with her in Johnson Hall her freshman
year, forcing her into a routine and snuggling up with
her when she was affected.
some ways, he’s made her feel whole.
have feelings for this animal,” she said, “that
means I’m still human.”
animals, or ESAs, are owned by people with mental health
disorders and deemed necessary by medical professionals.
The animals, which typically have not had special
training, gained popularity in 2015 when they prompted a
federal guideline for housing providers, but they seemed
to go viral last year following news stories about
someone trying to take a dog or a peacock or a goat onto
an airplane — sometimes with success.
since, ESAs have become the target of ridicule: Popeyes
released an “emotional support chicken” carrier
available only in airports. Ellen DeGeneres poked fun at
them in her recent Netflix special. Some talking heads
have questioned whether ESAs are just elaborate scams.
despite the cries of “they’re just trying to bring
their pet everywhere for free,” people —
particularly those of the younger variety — are still
turning to emotional-support animals as a means of
treating depression and anxiety.
perhaps airports, nowhere is the trend more apparent
than on college campuses, some of which have seen
residence halls turn into Animal Houses as more students
file paperwork to keep an emotional-support cat, dog or
hamster in their dorm room. The ESA trend took hold over
the last several years while rates of anxiety and
depression among college students have soared in the
2017-18 school year at Temple, six students requested
permission to keep such animals on campus. This school
local colleges and universities with on-campus housing
have policies related to both service animals and ESAs,
which are different. The Americans for Disabilities Act
describes a service animal as one that is trained to
perform a task its owner can’t. For example, a trained
service dog may lead a blind person while they walk or
protect the head of a person with epilepsy when he or
she has a seizure.
also sometimes called “assistance animals,” usually
aren’t trained as such and serve the purpose of
comforting their owner, making them indistinguishable
from a regular pet to an outside observer. At most
schools, students must show that the animal was
designated necessary by a medical provider.
St. Joseph’s University implemented an
emotional-support animal policy, stating students must
notify the school’s Office of Student Disability
Services of their need and accept responsibility for the
animal’s actions, said Christine Mecke, director of
Student Disability Services at St. Joe’s. Likewise,
Drexel put in place a policy including emotional-support
animals in 2015, while Villanova’s emotional-support
animal policy went into effect last summer.
permission needed to bring an ESA on campus isn’t
difficult to obtain, and those who can’t get a
“prescription” from a doctor turn to the internet.
CertaPet, one of the most recognized companies that
certifies ESAs, connects clients with mental health
providers from across the country who conduct a clinical
assessment via phone and, if they deem it medically
appropriate, email a letter that satisfies ESA housing
or travel requirements. The whole process can be done in
a matter of hours and for about $150.
Conlon, the clinical manager at CertaPet, said she knows
some people may feign a mental health disorder so they
can bring their pooch to college or the grocery store or
another country with them for free. She’s admits
there’s “a lot of fraud out there.”
ESAs are medically legitimate, though, and
“animal-assisted intervention” is her specialty as a
is, the research on ESAs is scant, and many therapists
won’t “prescribe” them. Center City-based
therapist Madeleine May said she’s only ever written
one ESA letter for a client and instead refers patients
to third parties. She questions whether ESAs can help
patients expand social skills or if they instead
function as a “crutch,” but she said an increase in
college students requesting them makes sense.
loneliness and anxiety, they’re on the rise on college
campuses, and even if you don’t have one of those
diagnosed illnesses, transitioning can be hard,” she
said. “I think about people who are soothed by touch
and tapping into a sensory experience. Dogs could be a
Daniels, clinical director at Equilibria and a
psychologist based in Center City, said ESAs may help
reduce anxiety for some people, but there’s a risk the
animal serves as a “safety signal,” meaning the
person believes they’re safe only because the animal
person becomes dependent on that animal to be able to
function in the world,” he said. “It’s a
double-edged sword in that way.”
said her emotional-support cat helped her socially —
his presence forced her to meet other people on her
floor who wanted to play with him. Additionally, she
said, “it’s nice to know that you’re wanted.”
I’m stressed about doing homework or if I had a bad
day and am crying on my bed,” she said, “he will
come up and lay on me and start purring.”
dogs that need to be taken outside regularly can also
provide a reason to get up, which can be especially
effective for owners with clinical depression, according
to a junior at Eastern University in St. Davids,
Delaware County, who’s had a dog for several years
that helps her cope with depression and anxiety. The
woman, who is studying social work, didn’t want to be
named because she didn’t want future employers and
clients to judge her use of an emotional-support dog if
they found her in a Google search.
3-year-old Jack Russell terrier/chihuahua mix that lives
in the woman’s dorm room, was initially trained as a
service dog that can recognize when her owner is having
a panic attack or engaging in self-harm. Over the last
several years, Minnie’s owner’s health has improved,
and now the dog acts more as an emotional-support dog,
providing a comforting presence and a sense of routine.
almost like a security blanket,” the woman said.
“Especially when you go into a new place or go away
from home. Although it’s not an actual family member,
you have each other and you take care of them and they
take care of you.”
research has showed therapy dogs can relieve stress for
people they interact with. But Molly Crossman, a
researcher at Yale who focuses on human-animal
interaction, said that research has been limited to
short-term interactions and there have been few studies
that conclude if, how or why ESAs work.
do, there’s not likely to be just one “active
ingredient.” Some people respond to the soft, soothing
touch. Others feel like the animal is a presence that
won’t judge them.
a number of different things,” she said, “just like
friends aren’t helpful just for one thing.”