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Cats and Dogs for Others: Emotional Support Animals at BC Provide Comfort, Companionship

In Stayer Hall, one eight-man has a ninth, non-human resident. Bubby, Jesenia Correa’s cat, has lived with her since freshman year. 

“He has been very helpful in terms of mental health and in terms of homesickness,” Correa, MCAS ’25, said. “I am from so far away and I came here with no friends, not knowing anybody.” 

From a cat in Stayer to a dog in Welch, several students at Boston College own emotional support animals. Karen Jesch, a Ph.D. student who works at the BC Canine Cognition Center, said emotional support animals have a different function than service animals. While service animals are trained to provide medical assistance, emotional support animals provide their owners with psychological support. 

“Emotional support animals are not task trained and they do not have public access rights, so they’re allowed to live in housing that is not for pets, but they’re not allowed to accompany their handler into public spaces like service dogs are,” Jesch said. 

According to Jesch, emotional support animals are beneficial for people with psychiatric disabilities. She said emotional support animals provide their owners with a type of support that they cannot get from traditional forms of therapy. 

“They can be really valuable in that they give somebody a reason to get out of bed in the morning so that they can feed them or take them for a walk, and provide that source of unconditional love,” Jesch said. 

Isabelle Nikkhoo, MCAS ’25, said that in the mornings when she has trouble waking up or she forgets to set an alarm, her cat will wake her up by “making biscuits,” or nudging her with her paws. 

“In the mornings when I can’t get up, she’ll knead, like make biscuits, and wake me up,” Nikkhoo said. 

Having a cat on campus has greatly improved her mental health, Nikkhoo said. She said that her cat knows when she is having a bad day and will sit next to her and purr. 

“I think that no matter what, knowing that I have my cat at home, it’s a great thing to go back to at the end of the day,” Nikkhoo said. 

Julie Totten, founder of Cat Companions, a nonprofit organization based in Newton Highlands, Mass. that pairs people with disabilities with emotional support cats, said that owning a cat has many positive effects on the owners’ mental health. 

“Cats, they help you reduce stress, reduce anxiety, depression, just petting a cat releases hormones that calm you,” Totten said. “They give you a purpose, something to care for, and it’s just someone who always wants to see you and cares about you in return.” 

Emotional support animals are especially valuable for college students, Jesch said. Because college is a time when a lot of change occurs in an individual’s life, Jesch said emotional support animals can serve as a source of comfort. 

“College is a really stressful time for everybody,” Jesch said. “A lot of the time, you’re away from home for the first time, you’ve just lost a very strong support system if you’re a transfer student or a freshman, and that transition can be really jarring and really difficult.”

Ivy Bonilla, CSOM ’26, has an emotional support dog on campus this year. Having her dog at BC has helped her both socially and emotionally, she said. 

“He’s such a people person and it just opens me up to a lot of new people because I have anxiety and get very anxious meeting new people,” Bonilla said. “And when he notices I’m sad he also comes over to me … and he just snuggles up to not even just me but my roommate as well.” 

Though she enjoys having her dog on campus, Bonilla said he adds an extra responsibility to her life because she must ensure he receives the necessary mental and physical stimulation. She takes him outside roughly three times a day, so he can go to the bathroom and burn off some energy, she said. When she does take him out, Bonilla said they spend one to two hours outdoors. 

“We just try to take him out as much as possible and also let him play with other people as well, just so he gets that attention and focus that he needs sometimes,” Bonilla said. 

One of the biggest challenges of having her dog on campus is the amount of attention he needs, Bonilla said. Because her dog requires a lot of attention, Bonilla said that she gets worried about leaving him in her room alone. 

“He gets very lonely when I’m not in class even for an hour,” Bonilla said. “He’s also very mischievous, so we can’t leave anything on the ground.” 

Even though many pets, like Bonilla’s, demand a significant amount of outdoor time, living in a dorm room is not harmful to animals most of the time, Jesch said—as long as they receive the proper care and exercise. 

“I wouldn’t want to be a husky living in a college dorm, but if I were a cat or a really lazy labrador, then as long as they’re getting proper enrichment and physical activity and social activity, then I think it’s good,” Jesch said. “But there are some situations in which I would be a little hesitant for the animal’s welfare.” 

To register her emotional support animal to live in BC’s on-campus housing, Correa said she submitted an application through the Disability Services Office. The application asked why she needed an emotional support animal and how it would support her throughout the year, she said. Additionally, Correa said the application requires documentation from a medical professional. 

“I got a letter from my primary care physician,” Correa said. “I think at the time it was my pediatrician … he just knew the details about my mental health.”

After submitting the application, Correa said she had a Zoom interview with a representative from Disability Services who asked her more in-depth questions about why she needed her cat. This representative then met with other administrators and decided whether or not they would grant Correa the accommodation, she said. 

“It was kind of lengthy but it sounds more difficult than it actually was,” Correa said. “It didn’t take up much of my time and I got results back pretty quickly.”  

Nikkhoo said she had to go through the registration process a couple of times before she got approved and could have her cat live in her dorm. 

“It was hard just because I didn’t know what they were looking for and how to really express my need for an emotional support animal,” Nikkhoo said. “But I will say the process itself was simple to get through, it was just more making sure that your application and your story is thorough.” 

The Disability Services Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Getting approval for her dog to live on campus was not difficult, Bonilla said. But, while registering her dog to live in her dorm, Bonilla said that she also applied for a single dorm, but she was assigned a random roommate at the last minute. 

But Bonilla said everything worked out—her roommate loves the dog and even helps take care of it. But, she is still going to apply for a single again next semester, Bonilla said. 

“I did want to be in a single just because it’s easier for myself and not to have that hassle for anybody else in case they don’t like animals,” Bonilla said. “Next semester, I’m gonna try to apply again, because … it’s just not anybody else’s responsibility for him to be there.” 

During her freshman year, Correa said she had a random roommate who was not notified that she had a cat. 

“She had never had a cat before, so she had never been around cats,” Correa said. “So, when she came to living with the cat, she ended up being allergic.” 

As a result, Correa said her roommate moved out. The vacant spot was not filled, so she was left with a single room. Having a single during her freshman year was difficult, she said, because it hindered her social life. 

“I didn’t like having a single,” Correa said. “It was very lonely, it was very isolating, and I was sad.”

The following year, Correa encountered more roommate difficulties due to her cat—two of her randomly assigned suitemates were allergic. This meant her cat could not leave her bedroom, which she said was an issue because he gets restless staying in such a small space. Because of this, she said she was determined to select her roommates herself for junior year. 

“This year, my main priority was finding a group of girls who were okay with the cat being free-roam because I was not going to deal with that again,” Correa said. 

Though Correa said roommate issues are the most challenging part of owning a cat on BC’s campus, she said this year has gone smoothly. She was able to find seven other girls who were happy to live with her cat and have him roam freely in the room, she said.

“Now it’s amazing,” Correa said. “My roommates are super sweet, super accommodating. They love him.” 

Totten recommends that college students take roommate considerations into account before adopting an emotional support cat. She said students need to think about whether their roommates are allergic to cats and if they will enjoy living with a cat. 

“When you’re thinking about adopting a cat, you think about the cats’ well-being, your own well-being, and then the people around you,” Totten said. 

Besides roommate considerations, Totten said there are lots of other factors students need to consider before adopting an emotional support animal. Students should reflect on if they have the proper time, money, and space for an animal, she said. 

“If there is any problems that come up, you’ve got to take care of the cat,” Totten said. “So do you really have the time and the cost of buying everything?” 

Because of the amount of work it takes to take care of her dog, Bonilla said it can feel like she is the one offering support to her dog. 

“Sometimes he will come to me and support me, but then other times it’s like he needs the support,” Bonilla said.

While cats require less physical and social interaction than dogs according to Jesch, Nikkhoo said she still has a greater set of obligations than the typical college student because she is a pet owner.

“Taking care of her is actually not that difficult because she’s a cat, but there’s tough stuff where I’ve had to miss out on a pregame or a party to take her to the vet, like for an emergency situation or something,” Nikkhoo said. 

Despite the responsibilities that come with having an emotional support animal on campus, Nikkhoo said it is worth it.

“At the end of the day, it’s all worth it because overall it has completely increased my mental health, and it’s so great for my roommates too because she just makes everyone around so happy,” Nikkhoo said. 

October 29, 2023