Animal therapy: allowing students with mental health needs to thrive

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While service animals have long been a part of residential life on campus, colleges throughout the nation have navigated increasing requests for students to have comfort animals on campus in recent years. 

“A comfort animal is prescribed by a licensed mental health professional,” explained Anna Meadows, director of Accessibility Services. “The animal is part of the treatment program for this person and is designed to bring comfort and minimize the negative symptoms of the person's emotional/psychological disability. Some of the mental health benefits of comfort animals include providing comfort, increasing socialization, and reducing anxiety and loneliness.”

Freshman Mary Badertscher said her feline has helped her in many of the ways Meadows described: his purring calms her breathing when she is anxious, and his funny “cat moments” bring her joy. His presence also has helped her get to know other students. 

“A lot of people stopped by the first week or so to say hi to Prince Henry, but also asked me questions about him,” Badertscher said. “I made very close friends with some of the people who stopped by.”

Junior Autumn DeWitt has a golden retriever named Willow, who has become a popular face on campus. 

“People come by every day to visit Willow,” she said. “I’m training her to stay in my room if I have to leave, and so far the process is going rather well.” 

According to Meadows, there is one service animal (or dogs that have been individually trained to perform tasks for students with documented disabilities), and five comfort animals living on campus this year. Comfort Animals may be considered for access to residential housing; however, they are not permitted in other areas of the university such as libraries, academic buildings, classrooms, labs, and student common spaces.