More Colleges Allow 'Comfort' Pets in Dorms; Davidson Among Latest

Apr 11, 2016

More dogs are showing up on college campuses – and not just service dogs. Some students want to bring comfort pets to campus because they say they need them, and federal housing laws require colleges to make exceptions to their no-pet policies for these students.

More students are asking college officials to allow comfort pets in dorms
Credit Claudio Matsuoka / Flickr/

Service animals used by disabled people, such as seeing-eye dogs, have always been allowed on college campuses under the Americans With Disabilities Act. They are limited to dogs and mini horse only and have to be trained for a specific purpose. But there’s a growing trend of students asking permission to have comfort or emotional support animals on campus.

These are animals that students say they need to deal with things like depression or panic attacks. They’re not usually trained, and are typically dogs or cats, but can be other animals like a bird, lizard, or snake.

Comfort animals are not covered by ADA, but law professor David Favre says they are required to be allowed in dorms under the Fair Housing Act. Favre heads Michigan State Law School’s Animal Legal and Historical Center .

“The housing act is a broad law,” Favre said. “It applies to all kinds of housing and colleges are another form of housing and aren’t given exemptions from federal laws.”

At Davidson College, Nance Longworth, director of academic access and disability resources, said they are allowing comfort animals in all of their dorms for the first time this year.

“Only this year have we had students to approach us with, ‘I’ve been prescribed a comfort animal that I’d like to bring on campus with me.’” Longworth said. “ There’s about five right now.”

Students must have a letter from a doctor or therapist saying they have an emotional problem that is helped by the presence of an animal. Longworth says things are going smoothly but admits that there is the chance some could try to use fraudulent documents from a sympathetic relative to get their pet approved.

“We stipulate that they do not use a family friend so there’s no conflict of interest. I don’t ask if a family friend but students are more reluctant to ask for accommodations and we have an honor system here, so I don’t worry about that,” Longworth said.

But Favre says the potential for abuse is significant because there are easier ways for students to get that required letter than going to a relative.

“On the Internet you can find people where you fill out a form, pay some money and you get a letter when there’s been no personal evaluation of the person or the pet or the real need. The idea of fraud is readily available,” Favre said.

Longworth says once a comfort animal is approved at Davidson, students have to show vaccination records, the animal has to be on a leash and under the owner’s control at all times. No biting or wandering in other students’ rooms are allowed and comfort pets can’t go in dining areas.

“They can’t tether the animal in a public place on a bike rack or whatever. Right now, students are not taking comfort animals to class. They can’t present a distraction and need to be trained to lay down and be quiet,” she said.

That means no disturbing dorm mates with loud barking or other noises. But what if students in the dorms are allergic to animals or a roommate doesn’t want to share a room with one?

“We try to negotiate that with students and at this point, no problem of students being allergic,” she said. “If someone had a fear of animals, we try to negotiate, but the person with the disability has the right to have an animal and those rights usurp the rights of those without a disability.”

One North Carolina school, Lees McRae in Banner Elk, lifted its pet ban for all students  five years ago. A school spokesman says there are about 50 animals, mostly dogs and cats, in designated pet-friendly dorms. One study, five years ago, found 38 percent of colleges allow some pets on campus. Of that 38 percent, 10 percent were dogs, 8 percent were cats and 25 percent allowed reptiles.