Creature Comfort: More and more college students are moving in with comfort and service animals

By Shell Lin

For the Gazette

Published: 10-16-2017 8:53 AM

Every fall, college freshmen arrive on campus, excited to meet their new dorm mates. But what if one of those new neighbors has fur? More and more students are facing this reality with new policies regarding “comfort animals,” which are basically pets that give qualified students emotional support; and “service animals,” which are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities.

While service animals are more strictly defined, what qualifies as a comfort animal can range in size and species: popular choices include dogs, cats, fish and guinea pigs. In rarer cases, students have opted for scaly over cuddly, choosing snakes. 

But at what point does one student’s comfort animal become another’s discomfort animal? 

This is the controversy that’s playing out on campuses across the Pioneer Valley, as increasing numbers of students are moving in with their therapy pets. One such student is Sophie Miller, a 21-year-old junior at Mount Holyoke College who has a cat named Mango to help her deal with anxiety and stress. 

Sophie, who grew up in Rhode Island, has loved animals all her life, particularly cats and horses. She has ridden horses for 12 years, and last summer she fostered five rescued kittens. In college, she has even self-designed a major called Animal Studies, which focuses on animal psychology and behavior. When Sophie came back to campus last year without a creature around, she was so lonely that she asked around about the possibility of having a cat. She found a promising solution: She could request a comfort animal, which many colleges and universities are allowing students with diagnosed mental-health issues to have for emotional support. 

Mango came into her life last September when Sophie and her college friends were wandering around the animal shelter at the Dakin Humane Society in Springfield. On a cat tree, she saw Mango, a five-and-a-half-year-old Domestic Shorthair. Sophie picked Mango up. “He put his front paws around my neck, his back paws around my waist and wouldn’t let go,” she said, remembering how she’d thought, He’s chosen me.

As a support animal, Mango is only allowed to live in Sophie’s 117-square-feet single dorm room in Ham Hall; he is not allowed to walk into other shared spaces. When he first moved in, he would run under her raised single bed upon hearing a door slam all the way down the hallway. Gradually, he adopted to dorm life, contentedly roaming between her bed, a cat tree, a windowsill facing Upper Lake, and three differently shaped scratching trees, one of which was Sophie’s birthday gift from her parents.

“When I come in the room stressed out, he
gives me a hug and many purrs,” Sophie said on a recent fall day as she leaned back on two pillows on her bed, cuddling the ginger-and-cream-colored cat on her chest. “He helps me so much and calms me down.”

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Take a walk on almost any college campus in the area, and you’ll likely see a comfort or service animal. “If I walk across campus, I’ll pass by at least five dogs,” said Brianna “Bri” Harris, 22, a Division II student (or junior) at Hampshire College.

“Emotional support animals (ESA) are often primary relationships in students’ lives,” says Sarah Meikle, Executive Director at Diggity Dogs, a local nonprofit that provides service dogs and training. “They find solace and comfort from the relationships they have with the animals in their life. That is an incredible benefit, stress reliever and enrichment for students.”

Many campuses have seen a loosening up of policies regarding comfort animals — and a rising number of applications for them — in the wake of a lawsuit filed by two students against the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2015 for denying them support animals. (The students received a $140,000 settlement.)

Smith College transitioned to allow comfort animals in the past three years. “In the first year, the number was smaller, and it seemed to grow last year, and remained steady this year,” said Julianne Ohotnicky, Smith Dean of Students.

At UMass Amherst, the number of comfort animals has doubled since the school implemented their policy almost three years ago, rising from 30 in 2015 to 68 this year, according to Mary Dettloff, UMass Amherst Deputy Director of News & Media Relations. It’s largely young women who request comfort animals, but young men want them, too: 13 percent of these comfort animal owners are male. 

Getting approval for a comfort animal isn’t as hard as you’d think. As long as a pet is legal as a domestic animal in Massachusetts, and verified to be emotionally supportive to a student, almost any pet can come on campus as a comfort animal, according to Kaitlin Molloy, Senior Accommodation Coordinator for AccessAbility Services at Mount Holyoke College. That’s right — even a snake.


But not everyone is cheered up by the sight of a cat or dog in the hallway. Last year, a month after Emma Atwood, a 19-year-old student from Lexington, MA, came to Mount Holyoke as a freshman, she encountered a problem: Her neighbors, who shared a double room, had decided to bring in a comfort cat.

“I’m super allergic to cats. I’ve been allergic to them since the fourth grade,” Emma said in a lowered voice across the table in a small study room a year later. Her hair was tidily tied in a ponytail, her face makeup-free. “I get stuffed up with cats’ hair around and have to pull my nose all the time.”

Allergy reactions depend on individuals and vary from rashes to a running nose to tearing eyes, according to Dr. Jonathan Bayuk at the Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England. In some unusual cases, they can be life-threatening, causing asthma patients to be unable to breathe, for example. 

But for the most part, “with a little bit of patience and some thoughtful planning, this should be able to be worked around,” Dr. Bayuk added. “Locally, it’s not a huge issue, but individually it could be.”

The allergen largely comes from the dogs’ or cats’ skin. “When they shed, the skin comes off with their fur,” he said. “As far as going around campus, being outside shouldn’t be much of a problem. But if you’re living with someone in a dorm room, that could be an issue.” 

Wilder Hall, the Mount Holyoke dorm where Emma lived for the first month of last year, had rooms tightly arranged together. If Emma and her neighbor both had their doors open, the cat fur could come in. After they notified the college’s Office of Residential Life and AccessAbility Services, Emma was forced to move to the far end of campus, in the middle of midterm exams, away from her friends.

As comfort animals become more common at colleges and universities, the contradictory needs of animal owners and their allergic peers present a major dilemma on campus. When asked how the school can be more proactive in preventing placing an animal owner and an allergic student on the same floor, Amber Douglas, Mount Holyoke’s Director of Student Success Initiatives, answered: “Sometimes we have to be reactive, because we don’t have enough information about student allergies.” She explained that it is optional for students to register their allergies with the accessibility office. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to.

Unlike substance-free dorms, schools generally don’t set up housing only for students with animals, or only for students with animal allergies. “We don’t have separate dorms for students with animals because that would be discriminative — that’s why we work on a case-by-case basis for every student,” Smith Dean Ohotnicky said.

“If you tell me your housing preference is that you don’t want to live with people with animals, and the only people who have animals on campus are people with disability,” Mount Holyoke Director Douglas explained, “that could be interpreted as a form of discrimination.” 

However, schools do take measures to minimize the conflicts. “Before students brings their animals onto campus,” Mount Holyoke Senior Accommodation Coordinator Molloy said, “we require them to have a conversation with their roommate and require an email from the roommate saying that they are OK with living with the animal.” 


Miranda Harrison, a 23-year-old junior student at Hampshire College who suffers from PTSD and anxiety disorder, brings her service dog, Penelope, to all her classes. Under a seat in the lecture halls or a round table in a seminar room, the 14-month-old corgi-mixed-breed quietly stays on her mat, plays her toy, chews on her treats and assists her owner whenever she feels anxious.

Penelope is a service dog in training. Unlike comfort animals, service animals are granted more public access: They not only can walk into dorms, but also into classrooms, dining halls, even flight cabins. More qualifications are required, too. While a comfort animal can be any domestic pet, a service animal must be a dog or miniature horse specifically trained to assist a person with a disability — by moving a wheelchair or reminding the handler to take medicine, for example.

Miranda started self-training Penelope when the dog was four months old, with the help of a Los Angeles-based service-dog-training program called Karma Dog Training. “Currently she is able to alert to anxiety attacks, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts, and interrupt the thought processes and prevent physiological symptoms by providing tactile stimulation,” Miranda continued in a text message. “She is also learning to guide me out of a room and to a safe and isolated location when she notices that I am experiencing symptoms, often before I realize it myself.”

“My professors have been incredibly accommodating,” Miranda added. While one professor had allergies, Miranda wiped down and brushed Penelope before every class and kept windows open to ensure a minimum of hair. “So far, there haven’t been any problems,” she said. 

Other students have a harder time. Hampshire student Brianna Harris, also a self-trainer, was told by a professor that she couldn’t walk into the classroom with her dog, Arrow. A six-month-old German Shorthaired Pointer, Arrow was trained to help with Brianna’s panic disorder, which sometimes manifests itself in panic attacks. “The professor said she was allergic and wouldn’t let the dog come in,” Brianna said. “I explicitly explained to her it was a training-in-process service dog, and she still made me unable to take a class, which is completely illegal.”

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals.” (In Massachusetts, service animals in training are granted the same access as fully trained service animals.) Under the law, when an allergic person is placed in the same room with a service animal, they both should be accommodated. That’s why students who are service-animal owners usually are able to work out a solution with their professors. 

Both students and schools are working to raise awareness of the ADA. “[Hampshire’s] school administration has been working on updating the website to inform students and faculty about service dog protocol and etiquette,” Miranda said. “I’m appreciative of that because I’m just starting out.” 

Meanwhile, both emotional support animals and service animal owners are starting to build communities to inform and support each other. “We are trying to create a community for all the students on campus who have an ESA or a service dog,” Brianna said. “We want to share tips on training and get support, bring in more light and awareness, and also ease the transition.”