Pets can help students cope with stress, depression and other mental disorders. But until recently, this well-documented remedy did not guarantee a space for therapy animals on campus.
Lawsuits brought by students at Kent State University (settlement proposed in 2016) and The University of Nebraska at Kearney (settled in 2015) help to define how colleges should accommodate therapy animals that a professional has determined a student needs.
Recommendations include posting university policy regarding therapy animals, completing specific training requirements and issuing certificates of attendance, and keeping detailed records of therapy animals on campus.
Therapy animals, who provide comfort, are not the same as service animals (such as guide dogs for the blind) that perform specific tasks for persons with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees a student’s right to use a service animal anywhere on campus, while the Fair Housing Act defines only dormitory accommodations that should be made for therapy pets.
A campus counselor, physician’s assistant, social worker or psychologist can all verify a student’s need to keep a therapy animal in their living space, says Catherine Gillespie, partner with Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP, who specializes in higher education law.
Therapy animals are protected only under the FHA, and not allowed in administrative or academic buildings.
It is equally important for universities and colleges to set rules for the cleanliness and vaccination of therapy animals in order to protect all students in the living space, she adds.
“Ultimately, it is easier to have therapy animals on campus than to fund lawsuits brought by students requesting housing for these animals,” says Gillespie.