La Roche student reflects on Emotional Support Animals on campus

By Alysha Pluta, Contributing Writer

Mental illness can have a major influence on students and having a pet on campus could be beneficial to some. But what is it really like to have an emotional support animal (ESA) on campus?

La Roche University’s Assistant Director of Accessibility and Equity, Diana Atkinson, explained that ESAs are different than service animals. Handlers train service animals to perform tasks specific to their owner’s disability. Therapy animals, however, are animals that go into nursing homes, hospitals, schools to provide support to the people there.

Instead, an ESA is an animal therapeutically prescribed to a person to provide support and companionship. They help people with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues deal with their daily struggles.

While the university maintains their no pets policy, Atkinson said, they are required to consider requests based on student request, due to the Fair Housing Amendments Act. The University does not allow ESAs on campus until they approve students requests for accommodations.

“Each academic year, the number of approved ESAs on campus will vary based on need. We will typically have less than 10 ESAs on campus,” Atkinson said.

This year, I was one of the few students who obtained approval to have an ESA on campus.

I never thought I would have an ESA on campus, and I definitely did not think that ESA would be an energetic kitten.

Over the summer, I found a seven-week-old, abandoned kitten living in the field beside my house. He was so starved that we could feel every bone in his body; and he ate like he didn’t know what food was until we gave him a can of tuna.

I originally did not plan on keeping him, I just knew he needed help and I had to help him. I had been wanting a kitten, but knew that I couldn’t have one, so I was just going to help him and find him a good home.

I was the one he first came to when we found him.

He stayed in my room because my mom is not fond of cats, and he was not fond of our dog. He slept with me every night, waking me up with little razor-sharp kisses and the cutest kitty cuddles. He immediately learned that I loved him, and I was there to take care of him.

From that first day, I knew he found me for a reason, and it was meant to be. He was supposed to be my kitten, my furry best friend, and I did not know what I would do without him at school.

I would worry all day if I was at work, or simply not home, if my family was taking care of the kitten; if he was getting the food he needed, if he was getting the love and attention he so desperately wanted and deserved.

And I knew that I would have an excited little furry friend awaiting my return. He would do the simple things that pets always seem to do. He would be there for me to comfort me after a bad day, cuddle me when I needed a friend and make me smile when I was upset.

He also did so much more than that for me. He helped me get through panic and anxiety attacks. He comforted me during depressive episodes and force me to get up and be responsible for something.

I talked to both my therapist and Atkinson about my special bond with this kitten. They both agreed with me that it would be extremely beneficial for me to bring him on campus with me. So, I began the accommodation request process.

Within a couple weeks, the University approved my paperwork, and I was able to bring my best friend and emotional support back to school.

I can’t say every moment has been perfect. He randomly wakes me up at six in the morning, he gets excited then scratches and bites me a little too hard and he requires constant attention somedays. I have to pay for food, toys and vet bills, and clean up after him.

But in the end, the adorable kitty cuddles, painful kitten kisses, hilarious play time and comfort he provides always makes it worth it.

Alysha's rescued black cat looking to the left of the camera.

Photo Courtesy of Alysha Pluta

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