Due to changes in Fair Housing Act laws, clinicians are experiencing a significant increase in requests from patients for medical documentation to keep emotional support animals with them in “no-pets policy” rental housing. On a college campus, this leads to far more than just two-legged mammals inhabiting dorm rooms. There has been an animal explosion on our University campus with over seventy animals of various types approved as an “ESA” in the residence halls and unknown dozens more who live with their owners off campus yet still frequent campus. Only a small minority of these animals are actually trained and certified as service animals with the right to accompany their owner on public transportation to any public place, including classrooms and eating establishments. The rest are approved only for housing purposes, yet they are regularly showing up in airplane cabins and grocery stores, dressed in little jackets that are easily purchased along with “certification letters” for big prices on the internet. ESAs have become part of the campus and community landscape.
As a relatively outdoorsy, green and tolerant northwest University campus, the presence of animals on our campus has yet to seem like a big deal, but as the animal numbers inevitably increase due to 25% of the college student population nationwide currently eligible for an animal due to a mental health diagnosis, it is becoming a big deal as individuals insist on exercising their civil rights along with their dogs.
And it isn’t always dogs. There are cats, along with the occasional pocketed rat, hamster, guinea pig, flying squirrel, and ferret not to mention emotional support pot bellied pigs, tarantulas, and various types of birds. And at least one snake.
Yes, a snake.
As a physician farmer concerned with stewardship of the patients I treat and the land and animals I care for, I’m emotionally caught and ethically bound in this treatment trend. The law compels clinicians to provide the requested documentation to avoid potential law suits alleging discrimination, yet I’m also concerned for the rights of the animals themselves. I’ve loved, owned and cared for animals most of my sixty two years and certainly missed my pets during the thirteen years I was in college, medical school, residency and doing inner city work (my tropical fish and goldfish notwithstanding). I neither had the time, the money, the space nor the inclination to keep an animal on a schedule and in an environment that I myself could barely tolerate, as stressed as I was. That is not stopping the distressed college student of today from demanding they be able to keep their animals with them in their stress-mess.
As a clinician, I’d much prefer writing fewer pharmaceutical prescriptions and help individuals find non-medicinal ways to address their distress. I’d like to see my patients develop coping skills to deal with the trouble that comes their way without falling apart, and the resilience to pick themselves up when they have been knocked down and feel broken. I’d like to see them develop the inner strength that comes with maturity and experience and knowing that “this too will pass.” I’d like individuals to see themselves as part of a diverse community and not a lone ranger of one, understanding that their actions have a ripple effect on those living, working, eating, riding and studying around them. Perhaps corporate work places, schools and universities should host a collaborative animal center with rotating dogs and cats from the local animal shelter, so those who wish to may have time with animals on their breaks without impacting others who aren’t animal fans, or with potentially life threatening animal dander allergies.
So I find myself reluctantly writing a prescription for a living breathing creature perceived by the law as a “treatment” rather than a profound responsibility that owners must take on for the lifetime of the animal. With great gravity, I always let my patients know an animal is not disposable like a bottle of pills (or a human therapist) when no longer needed and must have a lifelong commitment from its owner beyond a particular time of high personal stress.
Pardon me now while I go take care of my dogs, my cats, by birds, and my horses and yes, my goldfish. They are my joy to support for decades and for as long as they need me.