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Emily Becker holds her tuxedo cat, Minjun, in her dorm room in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Minjun has been Becker's ESA since summer 2022. (Madeline Lynch | For The Post)

Service animals providing ulti-mutt companionship

On a warm spring day, with the cherry blossoms blooming, seeing people out and about with their pets is common. Whether they have a curious cat in a harness, or a typical leashed dog, humans and pets alike all delight in these sunny days. However, not all these pets are out for a bit of play. Many are on the clock and wearing chic, professional vests to indicate their status as working service animals. 

Megan Handle, a junior studying social work, finds that having a service animal has been incredibly beneficial to her livelihood. Her dog, Juniper, is a service dog in training, and she's been settling into her new role well. 

"It wasn't very hard to get her to focus on me in a work environment because she always wants to sit in my lap and wants to cuddle," Handle said. "So it was not the most difficult thing to turn those into task-related behaviors." 

As a service dog in training, Handle puts a lot of effort into ensuring Juniper's the best dog she can be. 

"Seeing her do something that you trained her to do, working, is very heartwarming," Handle said. 

Juniper's assistance helps to create a space for Handle where she can participate and interact in classes smoothly. Handle credits Juniper as her way of jumpstarting back to life. 

"She comes everywhere," Handle said. "She's been to football games, basketball games. She's met Rufus, and they're best friends." 

While Juniper might be able to go places with Handle, some students' animals play a more background but no less important role. When classes are over, Lauren Staigers, a freshman studying sociology criminology, knows a purr-fect emotional support cat, Carlos, is waiting for her. 

"He has been amazing," Staigers said. "When I'm having a bad day, I know that I can pick up my baby, and he'll give me little kisses on my face. Everything just falls right through and I'm better."

Although getting an emotional support animal in the dorms can be demanding, Staigers finds the process to be worth it. A lot of time was spent compiling all the forms together. Between approval from the veterinarian, roommate agreements and a recommendation, Staigers described the process as tedious and wished there were more resources available. 

"It's easy if you have someone to guide you along the path," Staigers said. "Maybe if they have student representatives for that it'd be very easy for other students." 

Many like Staigers also receive an OK from a therapist or doctor and bring an emotional support cat to college. Emma Khayat, a freshman who is currently undecided on her major, loves having her cat Armando by her side. 

Service/EmotionalSupportAnimals_Lynch 2
Minjun the tuxedo cat, owned by Emily Becker, plays in their dorm room in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Minjun has been Becker's ESA since summer 2022. (Madeline Lynch | For The Post)

"I've had cats my whole life and I was like, 'I can't go to school without one,'" Khayat said. "It really relaxes me."

Along with Khayat and Staigers, many people are turning to emotional support animals for assistance with stress in college. The demand for emotional support for cats specifically is increasing. 

"I've noticed a ton of people have them," Khayat said. "And then a lot of people that I haven't met since coming to school, have reached out to me in the past few months and been like, 'How did you do this? Like, I'm gonna get one,'"

The popularity of animal services indicates how helpful they can be to those who need them and how they can also provide a sense of companionship at college. Khayat and Armando live peacefully in the dorms and support each other every day, with little to no external issues, except for the odd fire alarm. 

"Overall, I rate having a service animal a solid seven to eight out of ten," she said. 


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