2020 made us all more familiar with ways of communication digitally. Most of us have had to go through the mental operation of figuring out what background we want our co-workers or family members to see behind us. Sure, the bookshelf is a popular move; some people aim to show off what art they have hanging on their walls; there’s even the option to pick a digital background, allowing for any manner of grand bookshelf or monumental hanging art. But in my experience, there is really only one true crowd-pleaser in a boring Zoom meeting‒that’s right, it’s when a pet gets on camera.

Ok, maybe young children can be fun too, but for many people, just seeing a cat hop up into their co-worker’s lap or a dog trotting through the background brings an instant smile. “Awww, she’s sooooooo cute. What’s her name?!” This is because caring for and spending time with animals can not only be a source of personal fulfillment, but their presence can also be incredibly useful in helping us reduce stress and manage our own emotions. This brings us to our topic of the day: what separates a household pet from an emotional support animal, and what does that term really mean?

While all pets can serve as a loving companion, emotional support animals are set in a different category depending on their training or their owner’s needs. Service animals include any animal, but usually dogs, who have been trained to perform specific tasks to aid their owners. The clearest examples of these are dogs who are trained to assist people who have vision or hearing problems. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, these animals are usually allowed to accompany their owners into areas that are usually excluded to pets, such as airports, businesses or universities. Now, there is some wiggle room between what counts as a service animal and what counts as an emotional support animal. There are, for instance, dogs that have been trained to identify when their owner is having a panic attack and, therefore, attend to and calm them. Pets such as these that have been demonstrably trained, whether by the owner or a professional, to perform a specific task that improves the wellbeing of its owner can be nationally registered as support animals.

The most important thing is that labelling your pet an emotional support animal should never be viewed as a “trick” for getting your pet into places or housing where they would be prohibited. Be prepared to talk to healthcare professionals and be able to provide symptoms and sufficient causes to demonstrate that they are making an improvement in your overall health.

Many college students face the difficulty of leaving their pets behind at home, particularly if they are attending a school out of state. This is tough any time, but college can have some really stressful and demanding challenges of its own. So, can you have an emotional support animal at Life University? Well, that depends. Here is the University’s statement on its animal policy:

All leash laws in Cobb County are enforced on our campus. Particularly, dogs are not allowed on the campus, to include the athletic fields, track facilities or in the buildings. Service and Comfort animals are allowed on campus in accordance with ADA guidelines.

Dogs can be taken on the five miles of running trail for the purposes of personal security, but the dog must be on a leash, and the owner must clean up after them. The University reserves the right to remove animals from campus.

So, let’s take one more step over to the ADA for a little more information. On the topic of whether comfort, support or therapy animals are considered to be service animals, they write:

No. These terms [comfort, support or therapy animals] are used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person. Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places. You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.

So again, you will need to demonstrate both a level of need and training, but after accomplishing that, it should be possible for certain students to bring their support animal with them to school. At the risk of being repetitive, this is not just a fun way to spend more time with your pet and shouldn’t be abused. Of course, if you have a place of your own, then there is nothing stopping you from bringing home a new companion when you are ready!