University of Minnesota considers ban on emotional support animals in class

Joie Henney hugs his emotional support alligator, Wally.

Joie Henney hugs his emotional support alligator, Wally. Associated Press

A new policy being proposed at the University of Minnesota would ban most animals from classrooms, labs, offices, and so on. The principal target: emotional support animals.

People are increasingly using dogs, cats—even the occasional pig, snake, or peacock—to soothe depression, anxiety, PTSD, autism, or Aspergers. According to the Minnesota Daily, the university approved 40 such animals last year. The university didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a spokesperoson said that most requests for support animals don't stray far from dogs.

The problem with emotional support animals—and the reason they often find themselves in the heart of spirited debate—is that there are no concrete training or discipline requirements for them.

That means there are no guarantees they won't get uncomfortably physical with others, or suffer from intense diarrhea, as one dog did at the Anoka County Government Center in 2016. (The smell was unpleasant and the cleanup extensive.)

As University Services Chief of Staff Paige Rohman told the Daily, these animals also cause problems for people with allergies, or those in the Muslim faith, who may believe that dog saliva is unclean. They’ll still be allowed in housing facilities, but when their owners go to class, they have to stay behind. 

It’s totally within the university’s rights to do this. Service animals are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Emotional support animals, however, don’t have that privilege except on airplanes, which have their own sets of guidelines.

And even those rules are getting a little stricter. Last year, American Airlines joined other companies in restricting its emotional support animal allowances to dogs, cats, and “the occasional miniature horse.” No more squirrels. No more ducks. No more peacocks.

It’s arguably a shame that well-behaved animals can no longer be there for their owners. But when they mess up, it’s the highly trained service animals that pay for it—not just because it gives service animals a bad name, but because it could make them less effective at their jobs.

As Ken Rodgers, a blind man who uses a guide dog, told the Star Tribune last year, one attack by an untrained animal can put a legit seeing-eye dog out of commission for good.

“It just takes one encounter that could render the service dog unusable,” he said. “We live with that fear all the time.”