Animals provide source of comfort for college students


Courtesy / Humane Society of West Michigan

Mary Racette

The everyday life of college students has changed due to the shift in virtual learning and gathering. However, one thing that has stayed constant is the stress caused by heavy workloads. Some students have looked to their pets and emotional support animals for comfort during this especially difficult era of stress and isolation.  

Psychology professor Mary Bower Russa referenced various recent studies that show the relationship between pets and their owners. Her research found that having an animal in the house can have positive physical and psychological effects on an owner. 

While Russa’s research focuses on pets, she said the literature on the positive impact of pets on its owner may also apply to students with registered emotional support animals. 

Director of GVSU’s Disability Support Resources Shontaye Witcher clarified the difference between emotional support animals and pets. 

“An assistance animal is not a pet and is recognized as a ‘reasonable accommodation’ for a person with a disability,” Witcher said. “Emotional support animals have been known to assist disabled individuals with severe depression, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and many other emotional and psychiatric disabilities.”

Students are required to go through the process of registering their emotional support animal through DSR. 

Bryce Thomas, a communications and criminal justice student at GVSU has a labradoodle as a registered emotional support animal. 

“If I wouldn’t have had him to lean on during the pandemic, I know I would’ve been way worse off,” Thomas said. “I really counted on him when it got harder over the summer, and now I feel like maybe I rely on him a little too much. We’ve spent so much time together I find it hard to leave the house or go without him in public.”

Isolated people have been shown to benefit from owning a pet, Russa said. Typically this applies to elderly people, but the pandemic has led to an increase of younger people experiencing isolation. 

“It’s not just the piece of the loneliness, but there is also a ton of literature that suggests that pets become kind of a nonjudgmental source of support and they can become something that can actually help a person when they are experiencing stress,” Russa said. “Stress can be a contributing factor to depression and anxiety, which is one of the major things that we see our students experiencing.”

According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Healthy Minds Network, 39% of college students reported that they experience some form of depression and 34% reported that they experience some form of anxiety. Out of this sample of students, 11% said that their access to mental health care has become much more difficult due to COVID-19.

Russa said in some cases animals can act as a better resource to reduce acute stress than even a person’s friend or spouse.  For some college students, exams, assignments and social obligations can all be sources of stress. 

“When you have a stressor in the moment, the presence of a pet can help reduce that impact of stress,” said Russa.

Erin Calkins, a GVSU junior, has her golden retriever registered as an emotional support animal. Since getting a dog, she said she has experienced increases in her motivation and self-purpose and a decrease in her sense of isolation. 

“I cannot imagine life without her and I truly see her as my lifesaver,” Calkins said. “I have had so much growth in my mental health since I got her. Making changes has always been intimidating for me, but she was the boost of motivation I needed to start making those changes because I know she will be there to comfort me.”