An emotional support animal (ESA) is a person’s pet that has been specifically prescribed as part of a treatment plan for a diagnosed disability by a licensed therapist, psychologist, or medical provider. An animal as part of the treatment plan is to bring comfort and minimize the negative symptoms of the person’s emotional/psychological disability – in other words, the presence of the animal serves to reduce functional limitations caused by the person’s diagnosis and disability that are not being addressed by therapy and/or medication. It is rare that an emotional support animal is prescribed as the only treatment for a mental health disability.
Due to dramatically increasing numbers of students requesting letters from our mental health providers for emotional support animals, we have established some guidelines to manage this demand:
Our providers may provide such letters when there is an ongoing (greater than two quarters) patient/doctor relationship with one of our clinicians, when other treatment modalities have been utilized (i.e. therapy and medication) and when it appears that the student’s mental health condition may improve with the ongoing support of an animal. Prior to writing a letter of support, a student must be seen for an update d appointment by their mental health clinician in order to evaluate and document the current diagnosis and disability causing functional limitations, the ongoing treatment plan and to document the actual need for an emotional support animal.
Before requesting an ESA letter for documentation of their disability as an accommodation for their housing, a student needs to consider:
- An ESA is not a “therapy” or “service” animal requiring specific training and legitimate (not internet-purchased) trainer certification of the animal's ability to perform the tasks for which the animal has been trained. Legitimate service animals are very expensive due to extensive training and represent a very small minority of the animals used for accommodation of a variety of disabilities. Legitimate service animals are the only animals allowed to accompany a student into indoor public buildings on campus such as dining halls, libraries, labs and classrooms. An ESA is neither certified nor trained as a service animal and therefore is not allowed in public indoor buildings or public transportation. We do not write specific letters for ESAs to accompany their owners in the cabin of a commercial air flight. The State of Washington only allows written ESA prescriptions for housing accommodations. Please be aware there are potential regulations banning purchasing a vest for a non-service animal in order to gain access to public areas not legally available to an ESA. Read more here about the problems associated with the Misuse of Service Dogs.
- Due to allergy concerns, an ESA is not allowed under any circumstance in the Student Health Center or other medical facilities. Only pre-approved and certified service animals are allowed. You can provide your service animal’s training certification in advance of your health center visit by emailing to Student.HealthCenter@wwu.edu or faxing to 360-650-3883 and your medical chart will hold that documentation.
- Many animals do not adapt to living in small indoor spaces such as dorm rooms. Some students have found that keeping an animal in dorm rooms or small apartments has resulted in more stress, not less.
- Caring for any animal is a significant time commitment. An on-campus resident student must provide all the care and maintenance for the animal as it is not a roommate or friend’s responsibility. Students should also make sure that others in their family (parents) are aware of the decision to own a support animal.
- There will be significant financial investment in providing adequate food, care and veterinary care for the animal.
- The animal will need to be able to tolerate long hours of being alone without exercise of companionship as a student’s class and work schedule can be unpredictable and inconsistent.
- The student is solely responsible for providing adequate clean up, grooming and any necessary bathing of the animal to reduce odor and mess in the indoor environment.
- The student is responsible for making arrangements for the animal when away for an overnight, weekend or extended holiday break.
- A support animal is a commitment for the lifetime of that animal even if no longer needed as an ESA.
Some students seeking a letter for an emotional support animal have already made the decision to bring an animal into their housing without landlord knowledge or proper documentation and find themselves needing documentation quickly before an inspection or they face fines, eviction or loss of the animal. We do not write ESA letters under pressure nor as an emergency.
If you have further questions, please contact the Student Health Center at 650-3400.