Service and Therapy Animals on College Campuses

If your college student relies on a service animal for assistance with a disability, the prospect of going to college, especially if it involves living on campus, comes with extra complexities.  Your student may be concerned about whether their service animal will be able to live in the residence hall with them.

Fortunately, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, your student should have no problem bringing a service animal to college. Many colleges and universities are experiencing a rise in requests to bring service animals to campus. The law defines a service animal as any dog (or other animal) that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  The tasks that the animal performs must be related to the student’s disability, and can include a wide variety of services, such as assisting the blind, alerting individuals who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, or retrieving items. Service animals may also perform tasks such as recognizing and assisting during seizures.

Service animals do not necessarily need certification, although your student may need a letter from a doctor stating the need for the animal.  According to the American with Disabilities Act, the school may ask whether the animal is required because of a disability and what service the animal performs. Service animals must be harnessed, leashed, tethered or under strict control or the school may request that they be removed.

A ruling in federal court has also opened the door to the possibility of not only traditional service animals in college residence halls, but also the use of therapy or emotional support animals as well.  This ruling has come as part of a court case regarding the University of Nebraska at Kearny and a student who sued the college for not allowing her therapy dog to live with her.  The ruling applies not to the ADA, but rather as part of Federal Housing Authority regulations.

Emotional support animals are not considered service animals by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which largely regulates animals who perform their tasks in public areas.  This new ruling considers Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations regarding housing restrictions, claiming that college residence halls should be subject to regulations applying to permanent housing.  HUD regulations use a broader range of animals as assistance animals.

As with ADA regulations, there must be an identifiable relationship between the disability and the assistance provided by the animal.  However, the animal does not need to be trained, nor must it be a dog.  If it is not a direct threat to the health and safety of others or will not cause physical damage or financial or administrative burden, the animal should be allowable.  Once again, medical documentation may be required. Because the ruling regarding emotional support animals is a housing ruling rather than ADA ruling, these animals may be restricted to the student’s room and not necessarily allowed in other buildings on campus.

This federal ruling is likely to be challenged, and it has raised many questions regarding the nature of student housing.  According to one disabilities legal expert, ”it is a maze of federal laws.”  Many colleges are reexamining their policies and may be unsure of what they will allow.  Some schools may simply wait to see whether current policies will be challenged.

If your student relies on a service animal, therapy animal, or assistance animal of any kind, check college policy carefully and do your research well.  There may be a wide range of allowable options. If in doubt, contact the school’s office of disability services.

Related Posts:

Considering a Pet Friendly College?

How the Americans With Disabilities Act Might Affect Your College Student

The “Dog Days” of September Help Ease Homesickness for Some College Students




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