The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Let’s Talk About the Emotional Support Squirrel in the Room

Several major news outlets covered the recent kerfuffle of a Frontier Airlines passenger attempting to fly out of Orlando, Florida, with her emotional support squirrel seated with her. The passenger indicated at the time of her reservation that she would be traveling with an emotional support animal but failed to disclose it was a squirrel — an animal not permitted aboard the Frontier flight.

Airlines have strict policies about accommodations for support animals, including required documentation from a medical professional and at least 48 hours’ notice. Even then, the Department of Transportation can review “unusual animals” on a case-by-case basis.

These kinds of incidents raise questions about the policies colleges and universities have in place to address service animals and emotional support animals on campus. So let’s talk about the emotional support squirrel in the room and what the requirements are regarding animals in the workplace.

Guidance Related to Service Animals

In 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) revised the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to clarify questions that have arisen over the years — specifically those concerning service animals. According to Title III of the ADA, a service animal is trained to provide specific support or service to an individual with an eligible disability. There are no provisions for emotional support or therapy animals in the ADA; however, some states do provide protections for emotional support animals.

The ADA’s requirements for service animals are clear:

  • As of March 2011, service animals are defined as only dogs and miniature horses that are trained to do or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
  • With some exceptions, covered entities must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public can go (read more on the DOJ’s requirements for service animals).
  • Employee requests for accommodation for an assistance animal must be treated the same way any other request for accommodation (read the Job Accommodation Network’s overview on service animals as workplace accommodations).

Murky Waters Around Emotional Support Animals

Although the DOJ has provided clarification on some specific concerns employers have regarding compliance around service animals, there is less concrete documentation concerning emotional support animals.

Here is what we know:

  • According to the Fair Housing Act, an emotional support animal is a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability.
  • S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) holds that an assistance animal is an animal that works, provides assistance or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability (read more on HUD’s requirements for assistance animals).

Campus Policies

Since higher education institutions have several constituents to consider, including staff, students and contract employees, there is a need for concrete language in policies and processes to respond to requests that arise.

Check out what some of CUPA-HR’s member institutions are doing in terms of policy regarding emotional support and assistance animals:

Florida Southern College

Georgia Southern University

Kenyon College

It’s important to create effective policies and procedures that can speak to requests regarding service animals and emotional support animals. A proactive and consistent response can help HR practitioners, disability services and other entities on campus navigate this changing territory.

Do you have an institutional policy for emotional support animals you would like to share? Send it to learn@cupahr.org.

Additional Resources:
Accommodating Assistance Animals from ACUHO-I
ADA Toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center
Department of Justice FAQ Regarding Service Animals
National Disability Employment Awareness Month
DOJ FAQ Regarding Service Animals