General Questions for the Campus Community
What is an emotional support animal (ESA)?
An emotional support animal (ESA) is an animal that is prescribed for an individual to offer comfort and companionship, as well as alleviate symptoms associated with mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
So, how is an ESA different from a service animal? Or a pet?
Service animals are dogs (and in some cases miniature horses) who are trained to perform a specific task or service for an individual with a disability. The task or service that this animal is trained to do must be directly related to the individual’s disability. Examples include:
- A dog who senses the onset of a seizure.
- A guide dog for the blind.
ESAs are not required to undergo training and can be any type of animal. However, they are prescribed by a healthcare professional and are often part of an individual’s treatment plan for a mental health disorder.
Pets may offer comfort and companionship, but they are not prescribed by a healthcare professional and are not required to undergo training. Like ESAs, there are no limitations on the type of animal that can be considered a pet.
Wait, can an ESA really be ANY type of animal?
Yes. Currently, there are no legal restrictions on which animals can be prescribed as ESAs. Decisions on which animal to select as an ESA can depend on many factors including: the animal’s safety and health, size of the animal, maintenance of the animal, personal connections to the animal, and campus living environment. This is why you may come across someone with a cat as their ESA and someone else with a bearded dragon!
If I see someone with an animal on campus, am I allowed to pet them?
If an animal is wearing a vest, you should assume they are a service animal. In this case, you should not ask to pet this animal, as this animal is working. If an animal is not wearing a vest, you always want to ask first. But even after you ask, you must be prepared for both responses. Some owners will be comfortable with you petting their animal, and some will not. You must also keep in mind that ESA owners look out for what is best for their animal. If they feel that their animal is not comfortable interacting with others at the time, they may decline your request.
What should I do if I am uncomfortable by the presence of someone’s animal?
Fear, allergies, and cultural differences are common reasons why an individual might become uncomfortable in the presence of an animal. The college seeks to find a solution that respects the rights of both parties. For example, if a student brings their service animal to class and you are allergic to dogs, an accommodation might be made to have you sit on opposite sides of the room. Decisions regarding accommodations in various campus locations are made on a case by case basis depending on the extremity of the circumstance.
How do ESAs actually help their owners?
Rather than answering this question with informational text, please read the direct quotations down below from students on our campus who are members of the ESA community.
- This student describes the comfort and companionship their animal provides: “Knowing that when I go back to my dorm and she’s there helps. I know I’m not going to be alone.”
- This student describes the benefit of having their ESA with them every day: “It’s not enough when you’re only seeing someone [counselor] on a weekly or less basis and my emotional support animals are here for me every day of the week.”
- This student describes how their ESA helped them develop responsibility: “I honestly feel so much more mature because I’m able to take care of this animal and also able to take care of myself.”
- This student describes the social benefit of their ESA: “When [my animal] is around, I am much more willing to talk to people.”
- This student describes how their ESA helps with symptom alleviation: “He actually can realize when that’s happening [PTSD symptoms] and if I hold him he will hang out with me and purr until he realizes I’m okay again.”
- This student describes the benefit of the mere presence of their ESA: “Honestly just him being there, he just has this presence.”
- This student describes the comfort and companionship their animal provides: “When I walk in a room he’s the first one to greet me.”
Questions for Members of the ESA Community
How can I register my ESA on campus?
At TCNJ, all ESA registrations and approvals go through the Accessibility Resource Center (ARC). Prior to registering your ESA through ARC, you will need the following documentation:
- A letter from the student explaining the need for the animal;
- A signed letter on professional letterhead from the student’s physical or mental healthcare provider that explains how the animal will provide assistance to this individual.
Am I required to register my ESA through the state or national registry?
No, this is not required. Your ESA is not required to have any kind of certification or identification tag. In fact, there are several illegitimate online agencies that claim to specialize in registering your animal as an ESA for a fee. This is a prevalent issue among the ESA community, as these organizations are taking advantage of a valid treatment option for monetary gain.
Where is my ESA allowed to go on campus?
Per TCNJ’s policy, an ESA must be contained within the owner’s room, suite, or apartment except for when the animal is taken outside to relieve itself. When the animal is taken outside of the student’s residence, he/she must be in an animal carrier or controlled by a leash or harness. However, this policy outlines the bare minimum for the college’s accommodations regarding where ESAs are permitted to go on campus. Further accommodations can be made on an individual basis.
What are my responsibilities as an owner of an ESA?
As an ESA owner, you are fully responsible for taking care of your animal. These responsibilities include proper feeding, watering, and cleaning up after the animal. Additionally, you are responsible for your animal’s care and behavior on campus. According to TCNJ’s policy, tick, flea, or other infestation, excessive barking, and aggressiveness are all examples of improper care and the owner will be held responsible. Finally, you are responsible for the health and well-being of your animal. Since your animal cannot advocate for him/herself, you are your animal’s advocate and you therefore must be able to recognize your animal’s needs. Being up to date with all vaccinations is a part of this responsibility.
Can my ESA go to class with me?
According to the college’s policy, ESAs must be confined to their owner’s residence. However, decisions regarding whether or not an ESA is allowed to attend class with his/her owner are made on an individual basis.
What do I do with my ESA if there is a fire drill?
Per TCNJ’s policy, an ESA owner is solely responsible for the removal of their animal from the residence hall. To the fullest extent possible, ESA owners will receive advance notice from ARC regarding any pre-planned fire drills in the residence halls. If a student does not receive notifications, they should contact ARC.
Questions for Faculty and Staff
As a faculty or staff member, what am I legally allowed to ask if I encounter someone with a service animal or ESA?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly outlines the two questions you are permitted to ask someone with a service animal:
- Is your animal a service animal that is required because of a disability?
- What task is your animal trained to perform?
However, the ADA does not have any guidelines on the questions you are allowed to ask an individual with an ESA. That being said, other universities deem it permissible to ask the student if their animal has been approved by the disability services office (ARC at our school) as a reasonable accommodation. Questions regarding an individual’s disability or proof of an animal’s status should not be asked of any animal owners on campus.
How can I create an inclusive classroom environment for students with ESAs?
For students who are approved to have their ESAs assist them in class, their animals are accommodations that increase their access in the classroom. Therefore, their animal is no different than other classroom accommodations, such as seating preference, extended time on exams, and extensions on assignments. It is important that any student with an accommodation does not feel singled out in class. They should be treated as valued members of the classroom community, regardless of their disability. As the professor, you set the tone for how the rest of your class will act towards the student with an ESA, so it is therefore important that you respect this student and value them as a member of your classroom. If other members of the class (yourself or students) have a legitimate concern (fear, allergies, etc.) with the animal, you should contact ARC to resolve the issue. ARC will work with you to come up with a creative solution that respects the rights of all members of the classroom.
What should I do if I see a student bring their ESA to a public location, such as the library or dining hall, where ESAs are typically not permitted?
According to the college’s policy, ESAs must be confined to their owner’s residence. However, it is possible that some students are granted access to bring their animals to other campus locations for various reasons. It is suggested that you do not make assumptions about this student, but instead direct your concerns to ARC. ARC will then be able to confirm or deny that this student has permission to bring their ESA to these public locations and take any necessary further actions.
As a residential life staff member, how do I create an inclusive living community for residents with ESAs?
The college’s policy states that ESAs must be confined to their owner’s residence. This means this resident and their animal will be members of your residential community. In building a residential community, it is important to value individual differences and show respect for all members. As the residential life staff member, you set the example for how the other students in your residential community will behave towards this student and their animal. It is therefore important that you value this resident as a member of the community and have respect for this student and their animal.
What do I do if I receive a complaint about an ESA from a resident?
This situation can definitely be tricky. Fear, allergies, and cultural differences are common reasons why an individual might become uncomfortable in the presence of an animal. The college seeks to find a solution that respects the rights of both parties. However, based on the extremity of the situation, solutions may vary. Know that as a member of residential life staff, you are not alone in making these decisions. For example, ARC is there to serve as a resource for the campus community when problems or questions arise involving ESAs. By consulting with ARC as well as your supervisors and other members of the residential life staff, you will feel more confident in resolving such conflicts in your residential community.
Question for All Readers
Where can I find more information if my question was not addressed above?
If you have a question that was not answered above, please reach out to ARC (firstname.lastname@example.org). A staff member will be happy to speak with you and answer any questions.