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Animal Therapy on College Campuses Helping Students Deal with Stress & Anxiety

Anxiety and depression have been the top reasons for students visiting their college counseling centers for the last seven years, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. In addition to traditional therapies, more and more college mental health professionals are turning to animal therapy programs. Learn more about animal therapy on college campuses, including how it works and how you can get involved.

Meet The Expert

Dr. Carol O’Saben Psychologist

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What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy began in the early 1990s. This form of therapy uses small and large animals to help patients or individuals deal with mental, emotional and physical issues. Dogs are typically used but some programs also have horses, donkeys and alpacas or llamas. Animal therapy is primarily offered in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and long-term care facilities, but increasingly are popping up in airports, schools, colleges and other places where individuals may experience high stress or anxiety.

Pet vs. Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal

Animal therapy is often confused with pets, service animals and emotional support animals. While pets do provide day-to-day love and affection, pets aren’t trained or certified to provide therapeutic benefits the way therapy animals are. Therapy animals also don’t go home with you – they are specifically trained to provide comfort and support to individuals who are experiencing stress or trauma, and tend to either visit or be visited by those they help.

Service animals

Service animals (usually dogs) are trained to help people with disabilities live full and independent lives and aren’t “pets” at all. They work with only one person – their handler – to help them stay safe and complete certain tasks that are challenging or unsafe to do because of a disability, such as walking across the street when visually impaired. These animals accompany a person with disabilities at all times and can go anywhere the public goes.

Emotional support animals

Emotional support animals (usually cats or dogs) provide therapeutic companionship to their owner. While the animal provides emotional support and comfort, they aren’t trained to perform certain tasks and aren’t allowed in public areas – although on planes is usually an exception if the owner has medical proof the animal is necessary.

To have a service or emotional support animal, individuals must show proof from a licensed mental health professional and/or medical professional that the animal is essential to life functions.

Therapy animals

Therapy animals are trained and certified to provide psychological and physiological therapy to individuals – or groups – who aren’t their handler or owner. Unlike service and emotional support animals, therapy animals are encouraged to socialize and interact with other people while on-duty. Those interacting with therapy animals don’t need proof from a licensed mental health or medical professional.

Who Could Benefit from Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Healthcare and mental health professionals are still exploring different ways that animal-assisted therapy can be used effectively, but some of the populations who currently benefit from it include:

College students

College is stressful and so is adjusting to a completely new environment. Therapy animals can bring a smile and sense of calmness to students dealing with stress, anxiety and loneliness.

Children

Therapy animals are great at comforting children before and after they receive immunizations, or sitting with them while they wait at the dentist’s office.

Cancer patients

A therapy dog may help lift the spirits of cancer patients during long hours of chemotherapy.

Veterans

Animal-assisted therapy, emotional assistance animals and service animals are all commonly used to help support veterans, especially those who have been injured and/or are living with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Elderly

Loneliness and depression are common among older people and therapy animals can help mitigate these feelings.

Individuals with high blood pressure

Studies have shown that time spent with animals can lower cortisol levels and increase endorphins, both of which help lower high blood pressure.

Emergency Room visitors

Individuals who are at the ER with non-life-threatening injuries may feel a little more relaxed after a therapy animal visit.

Therapy patients

Therapy patients who are traumatized or hesitant to talk about past experiences may find it easier to communicate and express themselves when therapy sessions are combined with animal-assisted therapy.

Animal Therapy on College Campuses

Stress and anxiety are common among students so it’s no surprise that animal therapy is increasingly offered – and popular – in college settings. Psychology Today, reported that Yale University researchers found that more than 900 animal visitation programs have been held at college campuses to help students deal with stress due to academic demands, adjusting to dorm life and homesickness. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that students experience stress and anxiety in staggering numbers:

30%

of students said stress affected their academic performance

41.6%

said anxiety was a top concern

85%

told researchers they felt overwhelmed by expectations and demands in the previous academic year

College mental health professionals are also seeing a dramatic increase in the need for their services. According to the American Psychological Associations, appointments for counseling rose 30% between 2009-10 and 2014-15, while student enrollment grew by only 5% during that timespan. Of those who sought counseling during that timeframe, 61% reported it was due to anxiety.

Licensed psychologist and pet therapy expert Carol O’Saben sees a direct correlation between the rise of pet therapy programs and student needs over the past decade. “The first and most obvious reason colleges are adopting pet therapy programs is because most college students have to leave their pets behind when they go to college and they miss them,” she said. Coping with homesickness and/or loneliness can be a real challenge for college students, especially when trying to juggle classroom and extracurricular responsibilities. But animal therapy can help alleviate those feelings.

Therapy animals can also help students – particularly introverts – with socializing. “Attending an animal therapy event can help students feel more comfortable interacting with their peers,” says Dr. O’Saben. Students who have pets at home can related to others who also miss their pets or students can strike up a conversation with complete strangers while they pet or play with the animal. “Having a dog to focus on takes some of the anxiety out of having a conversation with someone new,” says O’Saben.

Examples of Campus Programs

Why Animals Are Good for Students’ Mental Health

Dr. O’Saben believes anyone can benefit from interacting with animals, even for a short period of time. “Students who are lonely or miss their dogs from home would likely enjoy participating in animal therapy events available on campus, while those who struggle with more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety might benefit from seeing a counselor in the counseling center as well as inquiring about animal-assisted therapy.”

According to Dr. O’Saben, some of the mental, emotional and physical benefits include:

Mental & Emotional Benefits

  • Reaching counseling goals faster

  • Identifying additional therapy goals that may have otherwise gone unrecognized

  • Lowered anxiety

  • Decreased loneliness

  • Ease in talking about distressing or troubling events

  • Release of happy hormones, such as oxytocin

  • Lowering of stress hormones, such as cortisol

  • Increased socialization

  • Improved connections with others on campus

  • Increased clarity and focus

Physical Benefits

  • Lowered blood pressure

  • Slowing of heart rate

  • Slower, more controlled breathing, especially in those with anxiety

  • Exercise (if the animal therapy program allows students to take pets out to walk or play)

During her years of working alongside Scout to better serve patients, Dr. O’Saben has witnessed several benefits. “I have had trauma clients talk to my therapy dogs about their experiences because it was less threatening than telling me about them,” she says.

But aside from trauma, therapy animals can also help with smaller, day-to-day stressors. “I recall reading an article about one campus that had a pet available for ‘check out’ at the campus library,” says Dr. O’Saben. “This service allowed students to take the dog onto campus for brief periods of time, which provided good exercise, a break from studies and an opportunity for socialization.” Even 15 minutes with therapy animals can greatly enhance a student’s mood, helping them center and refocus before going about their responsibilities.

Are There Risks?

While animal therapy has by-and-large been shown to have positive effects on students, some risks are involved. Before a school implements an animal-assisted therapy program, potential risks and concerns should be properly addressed.

“There are risks inherent with any time of activity involving animals,” explains Dr. O’Saben. Although all animals participating in animal therapy programs should have already received proper training and been screened for temperament, accidents such as growling or even biting can still happen so taking safety precautions is crucial. “Although pets involved in pet therapy activities are supposed to be trained, all animals can be unpredictable when stressed. Insurance to cover unexpected incidents is important,” says Dr. O’Saben. All animals should also be in good health and have received all immunizations.

Counselors using therapy pets must have the support of other members of the campus before starting a program, especially if animal allergies are a concern. “At one institution where I started an animal-assisted therapy program, I had to get the permission of other departments housed in my building to make sure they were comfortable with the idea of having the therapy animal in the building.”

To lessen concerns, Dr. O’Saben built in safety measures for staff, faculty, and students alike. “I created policies to protect the departments from allergens (e.g. special covers on all furniture if the animal is allowed on it), and approved practices for sanitation and for alerting those who might be allergic to the presence of animals in the clinic,” she notes.

However, it’s also important to consider the safety and needs of the therapy animals. “Allowing or forcing overly-stressed animals to engage with strangers only increases the animal’s stress levels and can result in dangerous situations,” warns Dr. O’Saben. “Those providing their pets for such services must always keep the animal’s needs at the forefront for the well-being of the animal and the safety of those with whom the animal is interacting.”

What if I need an Emotional Support or Service Animal?

Animal-assisted therapy is a great option for stressed out students, but others may need the higher level of care provided by an emotional support or service animal. In both instances, students need to speak to their mental health counselor and/or medical provider to understand if they are eligible.

To qualify for an emotional support animal, individuals must have a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist or other licensed mental health professional state that they have an emotional disability. Examples of emotional disabilities include ADD, bipolar disorder and learning disorders. Once a disorder has been established, a patient’s mental health professional must provide a letter that includes:

  • Proof that the individual is a current patient of the therapist

  • Care and treatment plan

  • Demonstration that the disability limits a major life activity

  • Details on why an emotional support animal is part of the treatment plan

To qualify for a service animal, individuals must be evaluated by a medical professional and given a document proving their need for the animal. Different service dog organizations may have varying requirements, but generally, a student must:

  • Be at least 14-years-old

  • Demonstrate a physical disability, chronic illness or cognitive disorder that affects at least one limb

  • Able to participate in a training program

  • Have the ability to handle their service animal independently

  • Have the ability to meet the needs of their service animal

  • Demonstrate an improved quality of life and level of independence

If students are bringing their service/emotional support animal with them to campus – or a current student is approved to get one – provisions within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) state that any postsecondary school receiving federal funding must accommodate them. The ADA also states that any college or university must allow students to bring their service animals to any part of campus that is open to students or the general public. Specific requirements may vary by institution and include requiring students to register their pets with disability services, provide proof of training or show immunization records.

Living Off-Campus with a Service/Emotional Support Animal

If a student lives off-campus and rents their own apartment, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) states that individuals with disabilities cannot be discriminated against when finding and maintaining housing. Although emotional support animals may not meet FHA rules, they may fall under the ADA provision stating all “reasonable accommodations” must be made.

How to Volunteer with an Organization

The majority of pet therapy programs on college campuses – and in hospitals, airports and clinics – are primarily fueled by volunteers. Because of this, these organizations are always looking for new volunteers to make more sessions available on college campuses.

If you have an animal that might make a good therapy pet and want to participate in a program like those reviewed in this guide, here’s what you’ll need to do:

Step One

Pass the obedience test. Lots of organizations use the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test, which assesses a range of qualities, including:

  • Being accepting of a nice stranger

  • Sitting politely while being petted

  • Standard grooming and appearance

  • Walking on a lead

  • Being around a crowd

  • Sitting and staying on command

  • Coming when called

  • Reacting suitably to distractions

Pass a temperament evaluation. Some of the assessments included in this step are:

  • Ability to remain calm in difficult or stressful environments

  • Capable of being around other dogs and/or animals

  • Reacts well to distractions

  • Isn’t bothered by older adults and younger children

Once the therapy animal passes both evaluations, it’s time for the handler to be evaluated. Depending on the type of organization they hope to serve, volunteers may be required to pass a child abuse background check and/or a criminal background check.

After both pet and handler have passed assessments, the teams are assigned a location and typically go out on a supervised visit so trainers can tweak any last-minute behaviors. Some organizations may also do follow-up evaluations or mentorships for teams who need a little more support.

Volunteering Without a Pet

The rules above apply to pet owners, but volunteer opportunities also exist for students and others who don’t have animals but still want to get involved. In addition to administrative support, volunteers are always needed to help organize and oversee animal therapy events, train new teams or provide special skills.

If you’re interested in participating, find a local animal-assisted therapy organization in your community for specific details.