An ESA is a pet that isn’t trained to specifically assist with a disability, such as a working service dog for the blind. Instead, the support animal mitigates emotional or psychological issues such as anxiety or depression. The ESA can be a dog, cat, snake, gerbil, mini-pig, etc.; however dogs and miniature horses are the only ones recognized as a working service animal.
According to U.S. law, working service animals can accompany a person with a disability anywhere. The ESA, by law, may accompany a person in the cabin of an airplane and may live with a person, even in “pet-free” housing. There may be further accommodations for a support animal if a doctor feels the animal is necessary in broader areas of the person’s life.
The increase in ESAs living on campus can be attributed to a few items. The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 that broadly expanded what a disability is, and a lawsuit settled before trial brought by the United States against the University of Nebraska at Kearney in which college dorms were determined to be covered by the Fair Housing Act. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the school on behalf of a student with an ESA who was denied university housing with the animal.
This legal determination has created a need for colleges and universities to balance the needs of students with ESAs with the needs of students with pet allergies or asthma.
According to disability rights lawyer, Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas based in Washington, D.C., “It’s the responsibility of the university to figure out how to accommodate all of their customers or to make modifications so all of their customers or students can equally access the services that they offer.”
For some students with allergies, who didn’t expect to find animals in a “pet-free” university apartment, accessing accommodations is a bumpy road. Judith Siemers’ daughter, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Denver, lived in on-campus housing for three years without ever mentioning her allergy to cats in housing paperwork, and never ran into a feline. Assuming that “pet-free” housing meant just that, mom and daughter never saw the need. “Our mistake is we never filed with disability services,” said Judith.
At the beginning of the 2016 school year, a student with an ESA moved into her daughter’s apartment and neglected to mention having the cat to anyone, including the university. Judith’s daughter began having allergic reactions while in her dorm room and couldn’t figure out the source. Finally, a roommate in an adjoining suite admitted to having a cat in her room.
Once the cat’s presence was known, Judith’s daughter quickly filed with disability services about her allergy. The student with the ESA also had to file paperwork with disability services, which should have been completed prior to the cat moving in with her. The student with the feline had to move out of the apartment because of the issues surrounding university rules. Judith and her daughter learned a valuable lesson to never again assume that a “pet-free” building means not disclosing her cat allergy.
Colleges may need to restrict ESAs from specific areas of a dorm reserved for students with pet allergies. However, the only way a university is going to know that a student has an animal allergy is if the student files the necessary paperwork delineating such. This allows for the university to balance the needs of the student with the ESA with those of the student with animal allergies.
Pet Allergies: A Gander at Dander