Increasingly, colleges and universities face a growing number of student requests to bring a cornucopia of animals into their dorms, classrooms, and other campus facilities. Determining whether animals must be permitted and, if so, what restrictions may apply is no easy undertaking. If your disability services office is stuffed to the brim with emotional support and service animal requests, then this recipe for evaluating and responding to such requests is for you.
Step 1: Determine the Type of Animal (And Accordingly the Specific Laws) at Issue
Generally, requests to bring animals on campus fall into two categories: service animals (SAs) and emotional support animals (ESAs). The distinction matters, as the rules and restrictions governing each vary significantly.
An SA—defined under the Title III of the ADA to include only dogs and miniature horses—is trained to perform specific tasks directly related to an individual’s disability. For instance, a student who is blind may have a dog that is trained to help the student navigate his surroundings. Similarly, a student with anxiety may have a dog that is trained to sense an impending anxiety attack and take action to lessen its impact.
An ESA, on the other hand, provides therapeutic companionship to improve its owner’s physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. An ESA may relieve feelings of loneliness experienced by a student with depression or provide comfort to a student with a physical condition, such as cancer. An ESA does not (and is not required to) have special training to perform the foregoing tasks.
Numerous federal and state laws may be implicated by a student request to bring an animal on campus as an accommodation. Chief among them, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires with few exceptions that places of public accommodation (including public colleges and universities) allow individuals with disabilities to be accompanied by their SAs in all places where the public generally has access. In addition, the Fair Housing Act—which applies to colleges and universities offering student housing—generally permits individuals with disabilities to bring both SAs and ESAs into campus housing.
Step 2: Apply Appropriate Rules and Restrictions to SA Requests
If the college has some question regarding whether an animal qualifies as an SA, it may only ask two questions: (1) Is the animal required because of a disability; and (2) What work or task has the animal been trained to perform? The college may not seek additional information regarding the nature or extent of the student’s disability or require proof of an SA’s training, certification, or licensure.
Assuming satisfactory responses to these questions, a college must generally allow the SA to access all areas of the campus open to the public, including academic buildings, libraries, and cafeterias. An SA may be removed, however, if an individual does not take effective action to control the animal or if the animal is not housebroken. Thus, a college may require an SA to be leashed while in public places, unless doing so interferes with the animal’s ability to do their job.
Step 3: Apply Appropriate Rules and Restrictions to ESA Requests
The Fair Housing Act does not impose any breed, size, or weight limitations to ESAs: dogs, cats, dwarf rabbits, snakes, and pigs are all fair game. Upon receiving a request to bring an ESA into student housing, a college may ask and request documentation regarding: (1) whether the requesting student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; and (2) if yes, whether the student has a disability-related need for an ESA.
If the answer to these questions is yes, then—absent a significant financial or administrative burden—the college must generally permit the student to bring their ESA into all areas of the covered housing where people are normally allowed to go, but not other areas of the campus, like classrooms. As to housing, the college can require that the requesting student attend to all of the ESA’s basic needs and request proof that the ESA is licensed and vaccinated. Under narrow circumstances, the college may deny access to an ESA, but only if it actually poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or will cause substantial physical damage to property and no other accommodation will sufficiently alleviate the concern.
Step 4: Implement Appropriate Procedures and Offer Training
Colleges should ensure that they implement legally compliant procedures to resolve all student SA and ESA requests. In addition, colleges should train all potentially impacted personnel, including disability services employees, residence life employees, and instructors regarding the do’s and don’ts relating to animals on campus.