Sit, stay, heal… Therapy animals help stressed out college students

After Josh Abernathy ’19 experienced the loss of his best friend to suicide a year ago, he found it hard to do anything besides lie in his bed. Only weeks into the beginning of his junior year, he was struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression and couldn’t participate in life like he had before. He decided he needed a new reason to get up everyday… cue JP.

After months of struggling, the thought of getting a dog popped into his head. JP is Abernathy’s dog, his ESA (emotional support animal). Named after his best friend, he got JP in December of 2017.

Animal-assisted therapy began in the early 1990s. This form of therapy uses animals to help individuals deal with mental, emotional and physical issues. Animal therapy is primarily offered in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and long-term care facilities, but increasingly is popping up in airports, schools, colleges and other places where individuals may experience high stress or anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 30 percent of students said stress affects their academic performance, and 41.6 percent said anxiety was a top concern.

Josh Abernathy ’19 cuddles with his dog, JP, named after his best friend, Jeffrey Paul. Photo Courtesy of Josh Abernathy

“JP makes my days brighter from the second I wake up until the second I go to bed.” Abernathy said, “He can sense when I’m feeling upset and is always there for comfort, and he also follows me around pretty much wherever I go, which I absolutely love” he adds, “he has been such a bright spot in my life.”

Who could benefit from animal therapy? 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.

For Kelsey Higgins ’19 her need for an ESA derived from having a hard time adapting to school without her friends who were on study abroad trips. “I was missing those outlets that I would normally have” she said.“I would be very apprehensive to take a medication or talk to someone at Bergeron, but having an animal is a prescription in and of itself.” Her new Corgi, Franklin, has been on campus since last year.

Stress and anxiety are common among students so it’s no surprise that animal therapy is increasingly offered and popular in college settings. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found a direct correlation between the rise of pet therapy programs and student needs over the past decade.

Hannah Mishrinky ’19 the co – President of the Active Minds club on campus said the activity that generates the most interest are the therapy dogs that come in during finals time. Active Minds works to break down the stigma around mental health and mental illness through conversation and acceptance. Mishrinky, along with the other club members, bring the dogs through the dining hall during the lunch rush so that everyone can take their turn playing with the dogs. “There’s just this unconditional love that dogs can give even for a short minute, and that helps a lot.” Mishrinky said.

Interacting with a friendly pet has plenty of health benefits—from lowering blood pressure to releasing endorphins that can help alleviate pain. Not only does interacting with pets reduce loneliness, but it also lessens the feeling of isolation and alienation with their unconditional acceptance and love. They lift spirits and encourage communication.

Kelsey Higgins ’19 with her corgi, Franklin, trailing behind her in the kitchen. Photo by Katie Farrrell

“In our work, we see that some people benefit from having an emotional support animal on campus” said Sarah Klionsky, counselor at Bergeron Wellness Center. “The vital issue is that the student is able to care effectively for their animal on a daily basis.”

“It does force you to spend some extra time that you could designate to other things but I think that’s the point of why I have an ESA and why it’s so beneficial to me, because it makes me go outside and take that 30 minute walk. It makes me get up earlier in the morning even when I want to sleep in until 11:30, Higgins said. Although taking care of an animal as a college student can be hard in terms of cost and time management, Higgins said it helps to have roommates that love her dog just as much as she does and want to help take care of him.

Under the Fair Housing Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states housing providers must offer people with disabilities a “reasonable accommodation” for emotional support animals. This includes college dorms.

“As much as I have to keep him on a schedule, he keeps me on a schedule,” Higgins said, “They take care of you but on the flip side you need to be able to take care of them.”

Abernathy concluded, “I would wholeheartedly recommend the use of therapy animals for anyone struggling with mental health. JP has completely turned my life around, and I’m sure other animals could do the same for others who are also struggling.”

Putting the animal first

Like most things, there are risks that come along with owning a pet on a college campus. Although all animals participating in therapy programs should have already received proper training and been screened for temperament, accidents such as growling and biting can still happen, along with the issue of allergies, so taking safety precautions is crucial. According to licensed psychologist and pet therapist expert, Dr. Carol O’Saben, “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.” 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 animals stress levels and can result in dangerous situations,” warns 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 whom the animal is interacting.” Dr. Carol O’Saben is a licensed psychologist and pet therapist expert located in Flagstaff, Arizona.