For most students, going to college means saying goodbye to the family pet. But some students, even in University housing, come home to purring cats — like Toast, a feline resident of Harrison College House.
For College junior Sarah Holland, Toast isn’t just a pet. Toast is registered as an emotional support animal, meaning that, like guide dogs, she is expected to assist her owner in some way.
When Holland dealt with depression last fall, she decided to get a pet, hoping that it would help her mental health.
The connection between animals and improving mental health has seen a rise in interest, especially on college campuses. Some students like Holland have received permission to keep pets as emotional support animals in university housing, where pets are not generally allowed.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines an “assistance animal” as an animal that “works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”
The federal government defines a person with a disability as having “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This includes conditions that many people may not think of as disabilities, like bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorders — or depression, like in Holland’s case.
The popularity of such assistance animals has risen in the past several years, in part due to a issued by HUD in 2013 that specifies that housing providers — including universities — must make “reasonable accommodations” for emotional support animals. Before the memo was released, it was unclear whether emotional support animals qualified as assistance animals, as the Department of Justice had excluded them from the broader heading of “service animals.”
The process to apply for an emotional support animal at Penn is through Student Disabilities Services, which provides forms on its website to request accommodations for disabilities. SDS requires documentation of the student’s disability.
Holland said that the process of requesting an emotional support animal at a Penn dorm was somewhat vague. While staff at SDS were able to walk her through the necessary forms, the point at which her cat was actually approved was unclear.
After receiving approval from SDS and talking to the dean of Harrison College House, Holland and her roommates began searching for a cat — but then received another email detailing things they would first have to do to ensure that the cat would not bother anyone else in the building.
Holland and her roommates adopted Toast from a nearby shelter.
“For a bit she was really anxious, but I just kept her in my room for a while — she slept under my bed for like a week — and then we let her out and she started exploring ... she’s crazy comfortable now,” Holland said.
She added that because Toast quickly becomes comfortable with new people, her friends will often ask to come and spend time with Toast when they’re feeling stressed.
“If you’re upset, she knows it, and she’ll come over and let you cuddle her,” Holland said. “I don’t know where she learned it ... but she’s so intuitive.”
Holland is not the only one to emotionally benefit from animals. Groups at Penn often bring during finals as part of an attempt to relieve stress.
Penn Benjamins, a peer counseling organization, partnered with Class Board 2018 and Penn’s branch of Active Minds to organize an animal-themed study break last semester — complete with cats and dogs from Le Cat Cafe and the Delaware County branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“We had people who were coming in and talking about missing their pets from home, and they were just feeling a little bit down ... your pet is your family,” Penn Benjamins board member and Wharton junior Phillip Isom said. “So we said, why don’t we get a bunch of cats and dogs ... to come and just be here so that people can take some time to hang out with them?”
Isom said that the positive feedback from participants has created strong support for a repeat of the event.
Last semester’s study break was far from the first on Penn’s campus. Penn has reached out to animal groups on several occasions to bring cats and dogs to school to help students decompress.
Other schools have gone even further — when a bear cub bit several students after being brought to campus as part of a stress-relief petting zoo.
However, James Serpell, a professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine, said that although people love the idea of animals improving stress, there is not a strong body of evidence to support this claim.
Emotional support animals, unlike service animals, do not need training or certification — just a doctor’s recommendation. In general, Serpell said, the popularity of emotional support animals has outstripped the scientific backing for them. What little research there is on the topic has mostly been funded by the pet food industry, which has an incentive for promoting pet ownership, he added.
on studies suggesting that animal ownership improves human health, but many of these studies look at the effect on short-term stress levels or long-term cardiovascular health.
Serpell is not the only one pushing for more research into human-animal interactions: At a National Institutes of Health workshop in 1987, Penn psychiatry professor emeritus Aaron Beck — sometimes called the “father of cognitive therapy,” a common treatment for depression — argued that “no future study of human health should be considered comprehensive if the animals with which they share their lives are not included.”
But 30 years later, much research into the area remains to be done.
Serpell said that the lack of evidence into emotional support animals in particular doesn’t necessarily mean that they do not provide concrete, measurable benefit — only that researchers can’t state confidently that they do.
Despite the lack of scientific data supporting the effectiveness of emotional support animals, many people say they derive significant emotional benefits from them. But humans aren’t the only ones that get stressed — and too much stimulation through an emotional support program can also hurt animals’ mental health.
For some animals, a college campus can feel too crowded and dangerous.
And Penn’s campus is full of pets. Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck and Ralph and Ellen Rosen have cats in Riepe College House, while Harrison’s House Dean Frank Pellicone’s dog Elvis is a common fixture around the building.
Pets also live in fraternity houses and nearby off-campus residences.
Sometimes pets do find Penn’s campus to be stressful, with its tens of thousands of students and high foot traffic. This is particularly true of animals who live in dorms or apartment buildings.
Serpell said that dogs tend to be more resilient, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be overstressed through too much social interaction. Most animal organizations recommend that emotional support animals get no more than 30 minutes to an hour of exposure at a time.
Philosophy professor Lisa Miracchi adopted Owen, a black and white dog that looks a collie mix, as a puppy. It quickly became clear that Owen was struggling with his mental health. Miracchi said that because he had not been socialized much prior to his adoption, he developed an unhealthy attachment to her.
“It was just me and him in this small apartment, so I was his entire universe,” she said. “That’s actually not super healthy for many dogs — it’s better for them to have attachments to multiple people and to get used to not being in the same room as their owners all the time.”
When Miracchi left home to attend conferences or even to teach class, Owen would become destructive and bark repeatedly, disturbing neighbors. Sometimes, he even refused to eat.
Miracchi became a faculty fellow at Stouffer College House last year, and the move presented even greater problems for Owen. Although Owen was friendly and rarely aggressive, living in a college dorm proved to be difficult for him.
“When unexpected things happen, when people come into his space — that’s what was really stressful [for Owen],” Miracchi said.
Miracchi took Owen to see animal behaviorists, and he received an evaluation at Penn’s Vet School. Miracchi called the veterinarians’ advice “validating.”
“It’s easy to feel like it’s your failure if the dog is having these problems, or if you’re not able to correct certain kinds of behavior,” she said. “I got the response from them that I was doing a good job with him and a lot of this was genetic or due to his early life before I got him.”
Yet despite the strategies that the behaviorists gave her and even medication, Owen’s anxiety failed to improve. In fact, it seemed to get worse over time.
Last Christmas, unable to find anyone to come take care of Owen at her apartment, Miracchi drove him to a kennel. She opened the trunk to find that he had chewed through the cloth carrier he was in — the cloth was marked with blood where Owen had cut his face.
That, Miracchi said, was when she realized that she needed to give him up.
“I just felt like I wasn’t doing the right thing by him, every time I have to travel,” she said.
Even though she had pets growing up, Miracchi said Owen was unique — he was the first pet that she had such a close personal connection with. He even affected her research. Miracchi works in the philosophy of mind, and seeing Owen’s “rich mental life” has helped shape her views on animal minds.
Owen is now being fostered by the president of the rescue from which he was first adopted. Miracchi believes the move was for the better. His new home has a large yard, with other people and dogs to interact with, instead of the cramped quarters of a college campus.
While overstimulation can be stressful for pets, so can loneliness. Dogs with severe attachment problems like Owen are rare, but most dogs and cats exhibit behavior problems or other signs of stress when not played with or cared for. For pets, the benefit — as well as drawback — of college life is that there’s always someone who wants to pet you.
This is especially true of pets who live in fraternity houses — like Bruno, a dog who lives with the brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.
Taking care of a dog can be substantial work, particularly at a frat house. When the house has loud gatherings, like large parties, one of the members keeps Bruno upstairs in a separate room to keep him from becoming overstimulated. Fraternity members delegate everyday tasks through a roster, and brothers volunteer to take him to the vet’s office or take him home with them during breaks.
“I think I got really close with [Bruno] over the summer,” fraternity member and College and Wharton sophomore Ryan Leone said, who took care of Bruno last summer. “Now, whenever I walk into the house, he recognizes me and gets up and gets ready to go for a walk.”
Leone said that Bruno has become a fixture at the house, referring to him as a member of the fraternity. And though Bruno is just a pet, Leone said that he sometimes also acts in the capacity of an emotional support animal.
“I don’t know if I can speak for everybody,” Leone said, “but I know at least for me ... if I’m having a bad day, I’ll kind of just pop in for a little bit. For me, at least, he’s there as a comfort.”
“I think [Bruno] also recognizes when people aren’t feeling too good, so he’ll be there and he’ll snuggle up next to you,” he added.
In the past, fraternity members who take care of Bruno over breaks have sometimes run into problems with landlords who refuse to allow pets. Public universities have only been required for the last few years to provide accommodations for emotional support animals, and some may find it difficult or inconvenient to deal with an influx of students who want to keep a pet on campus — especially when the process of obtaining an emotional support animal is so lax and research into their effectiveness is so scarce.
But the people who live with them say that the benefit of emotional support animals is real, even if it can’t be quantified or measured. And for students who live on campus, this usually means receiving permission from the school to keep their pet there.
“My parents and my friends can definitely said that I’m a completely different person now,” Holland said. “Before I got medication, [Toast] was already helping me feel better day by day.”