Emotional support animals help BYU students with depression, anxiety


Leticia Escobedo loves Prince Blanket. He lives in her apartment, where she feeds him, plays with him and cleans up after him. In return, he loves her back and comforts her when she’s feeling blue.

Ari Davis
Leticia Escobedo plays with her four-month-old cat, Prince Blanket. Prince Blanket is an emotional support animal and lives in Escobedo’s BYU-contracted apartment. (Ari Davis)

Prince Blanket is a 4-month-old cat and part of Escobedo’s treatment for depression. Last semester she asked her therapist if she could adopt an emotional support animal, and Prince Blanket moved into Escobedo’s apartment at King Henry in January.

Escobedo is part of a growing group of BYU students who own emotional support animals. These animals are most often dogs or cats, but some students own less traditional pets, such as hamsters or rats.

The university approved 31 requests for emotional support animals in on-campus housing in 2015, and BYU clinical psychology professor Lars Nielsen said the increase might be occurring as people hear more about the benefits of owning emotional support animals.

“The notion, and what people report, is that having an emotional support animal calms them,” Nielsen said. “They find it reassuring, so it calms their anxiety. I would say that’s the main benefit.”

Nielsen said he has written about 10 letters prescribing emotional support animals in the past two years. His patients have taken these letters to the University Accessibility Center, which helps students make arrangements to adopt an emotional support animal.

Ari Davis
The number of BYU students with emotional support animals has increased in recent years. Emotional support animals are sparking debate on college campuses across the United States. (Ari Davis)

University spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said in an email that the Accessibility Center requires at least 30 days to process applications. The Accessibility Center uses that time to verify a need for an emotional support animal, ensure the animal is vaccinated and determine whether roommates have conflicting disabilities, such as asthma or severe allergies.

Escobedo’s roommates haven’t had any problems with Prince Blanket’s presence in the apartment. They were excited when he first arrived but now ignore him, Escobedo said, the way roommates often ignore each other’s boyfriends or girlfriends.

Prince Blanket is a good support, but Escobedo said she doesn’t know if an emotional support animal is the answer for everyone suffering from depression or anxiety.

“It could help people a lot if that’s what they’re looking for,” she said. “I know not all depression cases are like that, or anxiety. It’s just very different for everyone. But if you want somebody to love you and you want to love them back, I think it’s a good idea.”

Her cat doesn’t need a reason to love her, Escobedo said, because he doesn’t know what she’s going through. Even so, she said Prince Blanket is a talking point that makes it easier for other people to understand her depression.

“Mentioning depression freaks people out, and they don’t know how to handle anything,” Escobedo said. “But if you’re talking about a cat, it comes up naturally, and you’re like, ‘I’m not telling you this because I want you to feel bad for me. I’m telling you because this is how it is. And it helps me deal with things.'”

Ari Davis
BYU approves emotional support animals when students can provide appropriate documentation from their mental health specialist. The University Accessibility Center approves these requests. (Ari Davis)

BYU has accommodated emotional support animals for years, and the issue is gaining national coverage and legal traction. In January, Kent State University settled a lawsuit with two students who were denied the right to keep an emotional support dog in their campus apartment. And many colleges report an increase of emotional support animals showing up on their campuses, too.

Registered animals are welcome on airplanes, but it’s easy to rig the system and list an ordinary pet as an emotional support animal. Many frequent fliers believe that travelers are bringing their cats, dogs, pigs and even snakes on board without a legitimate need for emotional support. This can frustrate flight attendants and other passengers.

But the pets can help people who actually require emotional support animals. Escobedo said she likes coming home to someone who’s excited to see her and is almost always in the mood to play. Prince Blanket might not be human, but she said he’s exactly what she needs.

“Getting to care for an animal, something that needs you, it feels good,” Escobedo said. “It feels good to be wanted, even if it’s by a cat.”

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