Emotional support animals and on-campus housing

Through NDSU’s Disability Services, students living on campus may qualify for an ESA

Adjusting to the new life in college can be difficult for many young adults. New social environments, meeting the expectations of professors and keeping up with homework and exams can cause a lot of stress for students. 

Leaving home, family and/or friends can take an emotional toll on a person. Saying goodbye to all of the human loved ones is one thing, but for some, seeing that furry best friend in the rear view mirror can be the hardest of all.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third most common cause of death among young adults aged 15-24. The CDC also says 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide in 2019, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt and 1.4 million attempted suicide.  

In an effort to improve their mental health, some students have found that having a furry companion by their side can boost their overall mood significantly. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states, “Emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”

If a student is clinically diagnosed with a physical or mental disability, and shows signs of improvement from having an animal near them, they can qualify as an emotional support animal.  

ESAs are a category of animals that may work, provide assistance or perform physical tasks for an individual with a disability and/or provide necessary emotional support to an individual with a significant mental health disability that alleviates one or more identified symptoms of an individual’s disability, according to North Dakota State University Disability Services. 

According to the ADAAA and NDSU’s Service Animal Policy, ESAs are not considered Service Animals. While cats and dogs are often identified as ESAs, other animals may be considered for approval.

Fair Housing Act

In January of 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance on reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act relating to assistance animals. 

“The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing against individuals who have disabilities that affect a major life activity. It requires housing providers to permit a change or exception to a rule, policy, practice or service that may be necessary to provide people with disabilities that affect a major life activity an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home,” according to a HUD press release.

In most circumstances, a refusal to a request for such an animal is unlawful. For example, a housing facility can not justify their refusal to an ESA request based on a no pet policy.

HUD General Counsel Paul Compton said in a press release, “With the Assistance Animals Notice, both housing providers and individuals with disabilities will better understand their rights and obligations under the Fair Housing Act regarding assistance animals, particularly emotional support animals. For housing providers, this is a tool that can be used to help them lawfully navigate various sets of sometimes complex circumstances to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided where required so that persons with a disability-related need for an assistance animal have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their housing. The guidance will help ensure that these important legal rights are asserted only in appropriate circumstances.”

The U.S. Department of Housing states that university housing is subject to the same ESA rules that apply to other types of homes and apartments. 

In recent years, there have also been a number of lawsuits where courts have found in favor of students who were at odds with their school over whether their ESA could live with them, according to esadoctors.com.

One university settled for $140,000 in a lawsuit filed by a student who requested to keep a miniature pinscher in her apartment for her chronic anxiety but was denied. Another university was involved in a $100,000 lawsuit involving a couple living in university housing who were denied accommodation for an emotional support dog.

Fair Housing rules and case law affirm that students in universities have rights as emotional support animal owners, just as they would if they were living in non-university housing.

What is needed to qualify for an ESA

In order to have an ESA in resident housing, students are legally required to have a letter from a licensed medical professional stating that their animal is an essential part of treatment for their disability.  

For individuals wondering how they get the required documents, they will need a “prescription” from a mental health professional, which is basically just a signed letter stating that they have a mental health condition and that their pet helps them deal with it.

NDSU Residence Life is allowed to ask students to produce this document and will deny an emotional support animal if they do not have it.

It is possible for students to qualify a pet they already own as an ESA considering an ESA does not need to be specially trained, according to HUD. However, before choosing an animal it is important that the animal is well-trained, or it is possible that the university will remove the animal and put it in the closest animal shelter until further accommodations can be made. 


For students who have been diagnosed with a mental or physical disability, it is possible to be qualified to receive documentation for an ESA animal that is able to stay in a dorm or apartment on campus.

“For this academic year, it looks like we’ve had less than 20 residence hall approvals that have come in since August,” Jason Medders, Associate Director of Residence Life Operations said. 

How to determine if the presence of an emotional support animal is reasonable under NDSU’s Procedures for Emotional Support Animals in University Housing 6.4.19

To determine if the presence of an ESA is reasonable, a student must provide reliable disability-related information from a mental health care provider with whom the student has an established relationship, that:

  1. Establishes the student requesting an ESA has a significant mental health disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  2. Describes the needed accommodation
  3. Demonstrates the relationship between the person’s disability and the support the animal provides.

If the student fails to provide the necessary and accurate documentation, their request for an ESA will be denied. NDSU could also deny an ESA if the ESA would pose a threat to the health and safety of others, or cause property damage. 

And, if the ESA is approved and these problems arise later on, there is a possibility that NDSU staff will remove it. Upon notice of removal, students or faculty are given 48 hours to remove it from University housing. 

Before deciding to keep an ESA in a NDSU Residence Life space, it is important to consider some factors regarding the space in which the animal will live and to stay up to date with the animals health.

Considerations for selecting the right animal once you’ve been approved for an ESA

  1. Is the Residence Life space adequate to house the animal and its kennel/crate?
  2. Is the animal completely housebroken and or litter trained (if applicable)?
  3. As appropriate, has the animal had its initial rabies vaccination and other vaccinations? Are the vaccinations all up to date?
  4. If the animal is other than a cat or dog, does it have a wellness certificate from a professionally trained animal health care provider?
  5. If the animal is a dog, is it at least ten months of age? If the animal is a cat, is it at least six months of age?

For more information, visit NDSU’s Disability Services page.

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