Emotional Support Animals on Campus Reduce Stress, Anxiety

By Dr. Valerie Hayes, Esq.

Sometimes the cute dog or cat—or hedgehog or guinea pig—you see with a student on campus is more than just a fluffy friend.

According to Anthony Thomas, director of the Learning Access Program, “An emotional support animal (ESA) is any animal that provides emotional support by alleviating one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”

“ESAs provide someone with a disability companionship and can help alleviate the symptoms of depression, anxiety and certain phobias,” he said. “ESAs do not have to go through specialized training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities. Emotional support animals are also not limited to dogs.”

In the spring 2022 semester, there were 31 approved emotional support animals: dogs, cats, rabbits, hedgehogs, hamsters, guinea pigs and a chinchilla, Thomas said. The Learning Access Program is Stockton’s student disability services office within the Division of Student Affairs

How is an emotional support animal different from a service animal? 

There are distinct differences between an emotional support animal and a service animal, such as a dog or miniature pony. On Stockton’s campuses, we recognize service and support animals as mentioned in the following university policies and procedures addressing disability, accessibility and accommodation. 

Emotional support animals also may be referred to as assistance, therapy or comfort animals, however they are not pets and they are not service animals. The key difference is that emotional support animals are not trained to provide a service to the individual with a disability.

Service animals are defined in Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, service animals are defined as a dog or miniature horse that performs tasks specific to the individual’s disability. Animals other than dogs or miniature horses are not considered service animals.

Emotional Support Animals on Campus

College can be challenging for students as they juggle meeting new friends, academic demands and navigating and belonging to a campus community.

Some students may experience anxiety, depression and other psychological conditions that impact their ability to succeed academically[1] and interrupt a smooth transition from high school to college.

Studies also show the bond between human and animals (cats and dogs) can be strong with positive health and wellbeing benefits on individuals across racial and ethnic groups.[2] Human and animal connections during periods of isolation as many individuals may have experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic provided positive mental health support and reduced the sense of loneliness,[3] while in contrast time spent engaging with animals was shown to have similar impact on individual physical and mental well-being in terms of reducing anxiety and stress, for example.[4]

An emotional support dog, provided by Shutterstock

In March 2022, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article[5] noting the presence of emotional support animals has become common on college campuses. 

The Federal Housing Act applies to Stockton because we provide housing for our residential students.[6] As such, in providing housing to our students, we cannot discriminate based on a person’s race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability. All the prohibited discrimination categories in the Federal Housing Act and more are covered under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 4a:7-3.1 & 3.2 and in Stockton’s non-discrimination policies and procedures located on the Office of Equal Opportunity and Institutional Compliance page.

However, not all student requests for ESAs are approved. “There have been instances in which an ESA request is denied,” Thomas said. “In most instances, the student’s documentation did not illustrate that an ESA is part of an existing and ongoing psychiatric treatment plan. Students are then encouraged to submit additional supporting documentation for further review.” 

Since emotional support animals provide comfort to individuals, specifically students, these support animals can be seen within campus residence halls and not elsewhere on campus when compared to service animals.

Within the residence halls, “The most common ESAs are cats and dogs, while less common are rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, rats and birds,” said James Timothy, assistant director of Residential Life Operations and Communications.

“Most students pursuing the ESA process are living with roommates they know before applying for an ESA,” he said. “This helps limit any resistance from roommates of shared spaces,” citing that resistance “typically falls into the categories of allergies/phobias, or concerns over how the applicant will clean up after their ESA.”

Both Thomas and Timothy agree that ESAs provide a “calming force” for students who have approved ESA requests and for other students as well.

Current ESAs On-Campus

Provided by: James Timothy and Anthony Thomas

  • dogs
  • cats
  • rabbits
  • hedgehogs
  • hamsters
  • guinea pigs
  • a chinchilla

“An ESA as part of a treatment plan does demonstrate positive outcomes for many students.” Timothy said. “The two most common ‘results’ seen include a decrease in anxious behaviors from students; and better self-management now that an ESA requires care-taking responsibilities and scheduled tasks as part of a daily activity.”

Timothy noted that “Procedure 3991 requires students to meet with housing professionals prior to an ESA approval on campus. These meetings cover expectations of having an animal on campus, and a discussion around challenges of caring for an animal. These conversations create an opportunity to interact with students and support the idea that campus offices provide information and resources.

“This (Procedure 3991) builds trust and allows these students to feel more comfortable accessing resources and seeking help when needed, which leads to overall academic success,” Timothy said.

At all times, the service or emotional support animal must under the control of their handlers. Service animals and emotional support animals may be excluded from campus when the handler lacks control, the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others, or if the animal is not housebroken. The university policies and procedures mentioned in this article provide additional detail about service and emotional support animals on campus. 

Valerie Hayes is the chief officer for Diversity and Inclusion. Along with leading the charge on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging work at Stockton, which has been recognized nationally, Hayes is always encouraging the Stockton community to join her in these efforts. 


[1] Adams, T., Clark, C., Crowell, V., Duffy, 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), 50-59.

[2] Risley-Curtiss, C., Holley, L. C., & Wolf, S. (2006). The animal-human bond and ethnic diversity. Social Work, 51(3), 257-68.

[3] Ratschen, E., Shoesmith, E., Shahab, L., Silva, K., Kale, D., Toner, P., Reeve, C., & Mills, D. S. (2020). Ratschen et al., 1-17.

[4] Clements, H., Valentin, S., Jenkins, N., Rankin, J., Gee, N. R., Snellgrove, & Sloman, K.A. (2021). Companion animal types and level of engagement matter: A mixed-methods study examining links between companion animal guardianship, loneliness and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Animals 2021, 11, 2349, 1-22.

[5] Donaldson, S. (March 2022). With emotional-support animals on the rise, how are colleges responding? Retrieved from The Chronicle of Higher Education, https://www.chronicle.com/article/with-emotional-support-animals-on-the-rise-how-are-colleges-responding?cid=CDP-articleinlineSee also, Salminen, E. (2018). Animal housing: Emotional support animals on campuses. The Journal of College and University Student Housing, 44(3), 46-61.

[6]See also, Phillips, M. (2016). Service and emotional support animals on campus: The relevance and controversy. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 33(1), 96-99.  See also, Von Bergen, C. W. (2015). Emotional support animals, service animals, and pets on campus. Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research, 5(1), 15-34.