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Emotional Support Animals Come To DSS

Published: May 15, 2015

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PHOTO BY KEVIN TRAN
Students Kamilah Alegre (l) with her dog Hercules and Lacey Alderman with Zeus.

While seeing emotional support animals (ESA) on the CSULB campus is not commonplace, it’s about to become more so.

“I think emotional support animals have become a bigger deal because there’s been more research and more mental health specialists are prescribing it and, of course, word of mouth,” said Rachel Mahgerefteh, the support services and coordinator of service and emotional support animals in CSULB’s Office of Disabled Student Services (DSS). “This is so new, but I think it’s going to grow so much.”

An emotional support animal serves as a companion which provides a therapeutic benefit, such as alleviating or mitigating some symptoms of a disability. Typically, emotional support animals are dogs and cats, but may include other animals. Mahgerefteh cited a case on campus where a guinea pig served as an ESA.

In order for an individual to be prescribed an emotional support animal they must have a verifiable disability. They must then provide a note from a physician or other medical professional stating that the animal provides a benefit. Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not need specific training.

According to Mahgerefteh, DSS is currently aware of 18 service dogs and emotional support animals on campus.

“Emotional Support Animals serve as a foundation for many of our students’ ability to maintain a sense of well-being, despite what difficulty they may be facing in the everyday life,” said Dave Sanfilippo, DSS director. “This is a new area of service for us, but one that more and more psychiatrists and therapists are recommending, and one that we embrace.”

Of course, Mahgerefteh and Sanfilippo aren’t predicting a huge upswing of ESAs on campus overnight, but there is a need and the more aware individuals become of this available support, the more they will seek it.

That’s exactly what happened in University Housing recently when someone saw an individual with an emotional support dog and asked, “I have a disability; how do I make this happen?”

“Students will come into our office looking for this,” said Mahgerefteh, noting that DSS already has documentation of an individual’s disability if they are registered with the office. “But, in order to have an emotional support animal a medical specialist needs to write a letter stating how that animal ties into their disability.

“The therapist or psychiatrist would have to think it’s something that would be beneficial to the individual,” she added. “And, I always ask if they have ever owned a dog before because getting a dog for the first time as a college student may not be the best idea.”

Emotional support animals are not to be confused with service animals—usually dogs—though they can be one and the same.

Service animals are permitted on campus for individuals with disabilities, while ESAs are permitted on the campus on a case-by-case basis, and neither may reside in University Housing without prior notification and registration.

One student who benefits from an emotional support animal is Lacey Alderman, a freshman biology major from Murrieta, who gets support from her nearly five-month-old dog named Zeus.

“Zeus is by far the best dog I could have ever asked for,” said Alderman, who wants to become a veterinarian. “Zeus helps me with my anxiety and depression and basically is there to comfort me. He is already my best friend and does everything with me and never leaves my side. Zeus is the sweetest dog and well behaved. Everyone at school loves him.”

The care, supervision and well-being of an ESA is the sole responsibility of the student at all times and it may be removed from any campus facility if there is unruly or disruptive behavior (barking excessively, exhibiting aggressive behavior, etc.) or if the animal is not housebroken.

Showing up in a classroom with a dog generally catches everyone’s attention, particularly if it’s a clearly identifiable service companion. Emotional support dogs do not need to be identified as such, through the DSS office does request they are. And, of course, there is some ahead-of-time planning to be considered.

“When there are people who are taking dogs to class we work with professors so that the animals are allowed,” said Mahgerefteh. “A lot of times they don’t even notice there’s a dog. The animals are well behaved. It can’t be a distraction for the other students or the professor.”

Anyone interested in finding out more about emotion support animals, visit the ESA webpage or contact Mahgerefteh by e-mail at or call the DSS office at 562/985-4635.