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Soft support system: Pitt’s emotional support pet

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Reina Yuan | Staff Photographer

Reina Yuan | Staff Photographer

Reina Yuan | Staff Photographer

By Casey Schmauder / Staff Writer

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Jen Crook isn’t the only Pitt student with a roommate — but she is the only Pitt student whose roommate is a kitten.

For the first time, Pitt has allowed an emotional support animal — a pet that’s also a form of therapy — in a dorm room. The three-month-old Pickles, a 6-pound white Persian-Siamese mix kitten adopted from Rochester, Pennsylvania, lives with Crook in a four-person suite in Pennsylvania Hall.

Across the country, universities, such as Pitt and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, are re-evaluating their policies on emotional support animals in response to the increasing number of requests — and lawsuits — from students with depression, anxiety, PTSD and other illnesses. In September, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to pay $140,000 to two students denied emotional support animals in college housing.

During her freshman year, as Crook moved to Pitt from Nashville, Tennessee, her father suffered a heart attack and a close friend passed away. Shortly after, Crook’s psychiatrist diagnosed her with major depressive disorder.

A 2013 study from the American College Counseling Association found that of 203 surveyed schools, 95 percent of counseling center directors reported an increase in the number of students with severe psychological problems in the past five years. Of those students, 73 percent had crises requiring immediate response and 66 percent had crises related to psychiatric medication issues.

When she returned home to Nashville, she constantly played with her cat and golden retriever. At school, she volunteered at an animal shelter, but classes kept her away, and she missed the “unconditional love” she got from her own pets. 

“That was the thing I was homesick for,” Crook, now a sophomore, said. “They were stable support for me.”

After talking to her doctors, Crook applied to the office of Disability Resources and Services in April to have an emotional support animal, which Pitt denied. With an unprecedented request, Crook knew that she needed to explain to the office precisely how tough her freshman year had been, to make them see that a support animal was necessary.

Later that month, after Pitt denied her request, Crook asked to meet with someone from Pitt’s office of DRS in person, and, after going back and forth for several months, the office approved her request in July.

According to Leigh Culley, director of DRS, Pitt does not have a written policy on emotional support animals.

“The Office of Disability Resources and Services handles these requests on a case-by-case basis,” Culley said. “As with any accommodation request, we utilize an interactive process which involves meeting with the student for a comprehensive intake.”

Currently, to handle requests for emotional support animals, Culley said the office would review medical history and consult with the student’s medical providers to assure that the accommodation is both necessary and helpful.

Statistics on emotional support animals are rarely published, as the animals require little training or licensing.

But according to Jay Dworin, executive director of Fair Housing Partnership, a nonprofit Pittsburgh organization that works for fair housing advocacy and counseling services for people with disabilities, about 30 percent of its 160 cases a year revolve around struggles for people with disabilities requesting emotional support animals.

If a landlord denies the request, the Fair Housing Partnership and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would launch an investigation. If they determined that the landlord had discriminated against the student, there would be damages in the form of fines. Dworin, who has dealt with several emotional support animal cases, said this is their standard practice for dealing with any landlord.

Pitt spokesperson Joe Miksch said the University is not worried about property damages as a result of emotional support animals, which Dworin said is the cheaper stance. 

“If [an individual] comes to us, and we went to the University and they said no and it seemed to be a legitimate request, then the cost of litigation would outweigh the cost of property damage,” Dworin said. “But the idea is that the University will say yes because it is the right thing to do.”

In light of the recent popularity of emotional support animals nationwide, University spokeperson John Fedele said Pitt is creating a formal policy regarding emotional support pets.

The University would not say if other students had requested animals, but Crook said the DRS office at Pitt told her she was the only student to apply.

Crook had to get written approval from her suitemates and confirm with  the building managers that the cat’s hair would not get into the vents and circulate, possibly harming allergic students.

“I didn’t want it to be a burden to other people,” Crook said. “That wasn’t the purpose of it.”

The University had Crook sign a document stating she was financially responsible for any property damage, but Crook said Pickles has enough toys that he doesn’t have any interest in damaging University property.

Pickles wears a Pitt Panthers jersey in her room, where he has to stay at all times. But according to Crook, he has lots of visitors and makes appearances on Yik Yak as #PittsFavoritePanther.

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According to Sharie Matta, a creative and expressive art therapist specializing in recreational therapy at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, animals can provide a multitude of benefits to psychiatric patients.

Physically stroking an animal has been proven to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as reduce feelings of stress and loneliness, said Matta, who uses group pet therapy at WPIC

“But it also helps the mental status of the patient,” Matta said. “Animals are nonjudgmental, they’re not telling [the patients] that they’re failing or losing or worthless.”

Although an emotional support animal is not different from another animal — that is, it doesn’t receive special training — Dworin said the distinction comes from the owner. For a person with disabilities, the purpose of an emotional support animal is to help them with the major life activities that the disability impairs.

Crook considered dropping out after her rough freshman year. However, once approved to have Pickles, Crook felt more confident about surviving college with her depression diagnosis.

“Knowing I had something to look forward to meant I could stay [at Pitt]. Having something to come home to that flops over and purrs on you,” Crook said.

Students at Pitt are not strangers to the idea of pets as therapy. Every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., 20 to 25 therapy dogs wait in the Cathedral for students to play with them and de-stress.

Therapy dogs differ from emotional support pets in that they receive extensive training and licensing to be around people, whereas doctors approve emotional support pets to help a specific person.

For Crook, having a cat to wake up to and come home to every day is its own kind of psychiatric medication. She chose the name “Pickles” after one particular session with her doctor.

“I knew my first cat would be named Pickles,” Crook said. “It’s because of something my doctor once said to me. He said, ‘Once you’re a pickle, you can’t be a cucumber,’ and he was referring to depression and how you have it with you your whole life.”

As she picked up the sleepy kitten she said, “He’s my pickle.”

Reina Yuan | Staff Photographer

Reina Yuan | Staff Photographer

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Soft support system: Pitt’s emotional support pet