Rachel Brill and Mary McCarthy are seniors and longtime roommates at St. Mary's College of Maryland. This year, they share their four-bedroom campus apartment with two other female students. Also, Theo and Carl.
Theo, easygoing and unflappable, is a tawny, 103-pound, longhaired German shepherd. Carl, an energetic charm magnet, is a jet-black, 1.5-pound Netherland Dwarf rabbit.
House rules: Carl must reside in a pen under Ms. McCarthy's raised bed; Theo snoozes in a crate in Ms. Brill's bedroom. Carl cannot be let loose in the living room, where Theo likes to hang out. "We're still very careful because we don't want there to be an issue with Theo and Carl," Ms. McCarthy said. "We're both very anxious people."
And that is exactly why Theo and Carl have permission to live in campus housing.
Like many schools across the country, St. Mary's, a small, public liberal arts college, is figuring out how to field increasing requests for animals by students with diagnosed mental health problems. Last fall it began allowing "comfort animals" for students like Ms. Brill, Theo's owner, who has anxiety and depression, and Ms. McCarthy, Carl's owner, who gets panic attacks.
Anxiety, followed closely by depression, has become a growing diagnosis among college students in the last few years. The calming effect of some domesticated animals has become so widely accepted that many schools bring in trained therapy dogs to play with stressed students during exam periods.
But as students with psychiatric diagnoses are asking to reside on campus with their own animals, schools with no-pet housing policies are scrambling to address a surfeit of new problems. How can administrators discern a troubled adolescent's legitimate request from that of a homesick student who would really, really like a kitten? If a student with a psychological disability has the right to live with an animal, how should schools protect other students whose allergies or phobias may be triggered by that animal?
The topic is being hotly debated by college housing and disability officials in the wake of discrimination lawsuits filed by students who were denied so-called emotional support animals. Last month, on the eve of a trial in a case closely watched by administrators, the University of Nebraska at Kearney settled with the Justice Department, agreeing to pay $140,000 to two students who had been denied support animals, and spelling out protocols for future requests. Recently, a federal judge refused to dismiss a similar case against Kent State University.
"The disabilities services people are all looking at what they need to do to make this work," said Jane Jarrow, an educational disabilities consultant who is teaching "Who Let the Dogs In?" — an online course about emotional support animals — for the fourth time this year. "We're way past pretending it's not going to happen."
In the years before support animal lawsuits, universities found it relatively easy to say no to requests
The overwhelming majority of support animal requests are for dogs and cats. But schools have had requests for lizards, tarantulas, potbellied pigs, ferrets, rats, guinea pigs and sugar gliders — nocturnal, flying, six-ounce Australian marsupials.