Often, when someone hears the terminology of a support animal, they will think about service dogs. However, support animals can be any type of animal. From service animals to emotional support animals (ESA), having a critter can be beneficial for a variety of reasons.

ESAs vs. Service Animals

An emotional support animal is an animal that is registered to be a companion of sorts to a person, with beneficiary results. ESAs can range from anything as small as a snake to a cat or a dog. 

Catherine Lewis, the director of Disability Services Offices (DSO) at RIT, spoke about the differences between service animals and ESAs.

“Service animals are species-specific, they have to be a dog or [in some cases] a miniature pony,” Lewis said. “They are trained to perform a specific task to support someone with a disability.”

Some of these trainings for service animals include seizure-detecting dogs and guidelead dogs for visually impaired people. Generally, service dogs are allowed to go anywhere with their person because they are serving a direct access need to someone.

“Emotional support animals are meant to provide equitable access to somebody in residence,” said Lewis. “They’re meant to give you emotional support, companionship and care in the place that you live.”

ESAs are not species-specific like service animals, as long as it’s an animal reasonably able to provide the support needed.

Another difference between ESAs and service animals is that ESAs are not trained to help their person with something specificsomething specific to their person — they are just a generally beneficial in lifebeneficial to their person.

“[Simply] by virtue of what they are in somebody’s life,” Lewis said.

Benefits of ESAs in College

ESAs serve as a sense of companionship and routine in a busy college student's life. Oftentimes students can feel lonely throughout their college career, so sometimes having an animal to come back to can be an amazing feeling.

“Having an [ESA] can play a lot of different roles for someone,” said Lewis. “Emotional reassurance at the end of a stressful day can help someone stay grounded and recalibrate. For some, the routine of caring for an animal can put some structure into your day that can feel empowering.”

Emily Yancey, a first year Advertisement Photography major, spoke about why she decided to register her two chinchillas, Thor and Loki, as ESAs.

“I have severe anxiety and depression and have grown up with animals my whole life,” Yancey said. “Being in a new place was difficult enough, so I brought a little bit of home with me [to RIT].”

“Being in a new place was difficult enough, so I brought a little bit of home with me [to RIT].”

Having Thor and Loki have helped Yancey significantly with this transition to college.

“The number of nights I’ve been so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed or be too anxious to even sit down,” said Yancey. “I just sat with my animals and it has saved me the entire time I’ve been here.”

Emily Roman is a third year School of Individualized Study major with a cat ESA named Akira. Roman has had Akira in her life for around a year now sincewhen she rescued her from a trailer park.

“I’ve been going to ... therapy for over a decade and one of the things I felt I needed was an animal,” said Roman. “I’ve grown up with animals my whole life and they’ve always provided some sort of support for me.”

Roman felt lonely coming to RIT without having an animal around her, which prompted her to get Akira.

“She came into my life at a really good time,” Roman said. “She gives me the routine and stability that I need.”

Fourth year Game Development major Alexa Amoriello talks about how she's had her cat ESA, Mimi, since her spring semester of freshman year.

"She's pulled me out of [solely] focusing on work," said Amoriello. "Having someone to greet me when I come home because I live alone ... has helped me feel more comfortable being at RIT."

"Having someone to greet me when I come home because I live alone ... has helped me feel more comfortable being at RIT."

Overall, ESAs for RIT students have multiple benefits — like routine, emotional support and companionship — and seem to improve the productivity of these students.

Though, with COVID-19 coming into play these past few years, ESAs are becoming more difficult to travel with.

"Before [COVID-19], there used to be guidelines on emotional support animals on flights not being charged as a pet fee," said Amoriello. "But due to the misuse of emotional support animals ... [airlines] now charge $80 to $120 each way to have [your ESA]."

RIT Accommodations

To have an ESA at RIT is a simple process. First, reachthe process starts with reaching out to the DSO with an accommodation request. Once the request has been approved, documentation is then required forabout the person and animal.

"RIT made it super easy," Yancey said. "I had to turn in some documentation stuff with my therapist and then an interview with someone from DSO."

If the ESA is a cat or a dog, vaccination documents are required to be turned in. TThen, the animal must not behave disruptively and is solely under the responsibility of the person registered to them. Roommates will be notified via the MyLife portal if one of their roommates has an ESA and will have to agree to have the animal in the housing situation with them. If they disagree, then RIT will help to make the situation work for all parties.

"As a college student, you have extraordinary full plates, especially if you are newer to college," Lewis said. "Transitioning from one phase of your life to this new chapter can be really conflicting ... [having an animal] has to be the right move for somebody and only they will know that."

In the end, it's important to understand that ESAs are beneficial for those who need them as well as those around them who find comfort in animals. Having the awareness that these creatures are more than just a pet is a relief for the owner's mental and physical wellbeing.