When it comes to animals helping their owners, people often think of therapy or guide dogs. Behind closed doors, however, there is another category that all animals — not just dogs — can help their owners with: emotional support.
An emotional support animal is defined by the National Service Animal Registry as “an animal that, by its very presence, mitigates the emotional or physical symptoms associated with a handler’s condition or disorder.”
These animals are not trained to help with panic attacks, obsessive compulsiveness, finding help, etc. Those are the responsibilities of a Psychiatric Support Animal. Emotional support animals do not have to be trained by a professional, and can be any type of animal. They provide their owners with general comfort and responsibility.
Although these animals are not allowed on BYU campus, students who pursue the correct process can keep them in BYU student housing.
Savannah Bell said she has greatly benefited from her support dog, a terrier named Lief.
Bell, who has anxiety and depression, said she was still struggling with her health even after receiving the appropriate treatment for her symptoms.
“I was still on a really bad schedule,” Bell said. “Even though I started to feel better, I wasn’t getting better because I wasn’t healthy enough.”
That turned around shortly after she adopted Lief in April 2017.
“When I got him, it went from me sleeping in til 2 p.m. to getting up at 7 a.m. because he has to be up at 7 a.m.”
Not only has he helped her keep a regular, daily routine, Lief also provides Bell with necessary physical touch.
“People need that (physical touch),” Bell said. “Just having something to cuddle is helpful.”
According to Anxiety.org, a website dedicated to helping people understand anxiety and how to treat it, pets can help lower anxiety levels, regulate autonomic stress in women, lower heart rates and lower blood pressure.
Bell had Lief approved to live with her in BYU student housing within two weeks after adopting him.
“It went really fast, but that’s because I started (the process) early,” Bell said.
Bell had been meeting with the appropriate doctors ahead of time and was able to obtain the documentation and letters necessary for approval far in advance.
GeriLynn Vorkink, director of BYU’s University Accessibility Center, said students should usually expect up to 30 days for authorization to be given for the animal to live in student housing. This should be taken into consideration when it comes to moving in.
“I frequently have to instruct students to find another place to keep their animal until it is fully authorized by Residence Life,” Vorkink said.
Dogs are not the only animal that can be used for emotional support. BYU Junior Danielle Zimmerman said her pet ball python, Izzy, has helped focus her attention on other things and not just her stress.
“It really helps me focus my attention on something else,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of times, a problem with anxiety is getting in your own head.”
Zimmerman said that taking care of Izzy is good for her because of how easy snakes are to take care of, how nice the responsibility is and even how relaxing it is to watch her.
“I find it calming just to sit there and look at her,” Zimmerman said. “(Snakes) are really cool to look at. They’re really intriguing.
Once Izzy grew and needed a bigger cage, Zimmerman moved her to her parent’s house in Orem.
“I do go over once a week to feed her . . . but I don’t get the same ability to just hold her whenever I want to,” Zimmerman said. “It’s been different, but I’ve found different ways to cope.”
While all kinds of animals are allowed as emotional support animals, Vorkink said that the size of an animal should be taken into consideration when choosing which is best.
“While there are no restrictions on the size, weight or breed of animal, students requesting an ESA should consider the size of their apartment and whether the animal could live there comfortably,” Vorkink said.
After seeing a neighbor buy a dog as an ESA and returning it for a guinea pig, Bell advised students to do their research before picking an emotional support animal.
“Don’t get a dog that won’t suit your lifestyle or is too hyper,” Bell said. “Anything that’s low energy and able to cuddle works.”
Call the office at 801–422–2767 or visit it in person at 2170 WSC, in the hallway behind the Subway in the Wilkinson Student Center.
Find the form on the accessibility center website.
The letter must document that the student has a disability and an emotional support animal is necessary to help with their symptoms.
The accessibility center will review the documents. If the office approves the documents, the recommendation will be passed on to Residence Life. Residence Life will review the documents and, if they approve, the office will notify the student. This part of the process could take as long as 30 days.