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Emotional support animals help students cope

Nikki Benenhaley

Nikki Benenhaley

Kristin Weaver, staff writer

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Columbia College students are bringing their emotional support animals to campus to help themselves cope during the semester.

An ESA “is an animal that, by its very presence, mitigates the emotional or psychological symptoms associated with a handler’s condition or disorder,” according to the National Service Animal Registry. ESAs can improve the lives of their owners, especially owners with mental disorders such as anxiety or depression.

Recently, Columbia College has allowed students to bring their ESAs to live with them on campus.

One of these students is Nikki Benenhaley, a junior psychology major from West Columbia. Her ESA, a rabbit named Macchiato, has been a great help to Nikki since bringing him to Columbia College.

“I live in a dorm room all by myself. And I was so lonely before he came into my life,” Benenhaley said. “Macchiato has opened new relationships for me on campus. People are so interested in ESAs that I have several people come by just to see him.”

Though all pets can bring happiness to their owners, having a pet does not automatically make it an ESA. There is a specific process an individual must go through to have a pet considered an ESA.

Benenhaley, for instance, had to go through the college’s disability services. When asked about the process, she explained that her doctor told her having an ESA could help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression she was experiencing. From there, she had to have several meetings with the college’s disability services. After those meetings, she had to have a letter sent from her doctor and a therapist who agreed that an ESA was necessary for her mental health.

“You need a therapist, a doctor and some form of diagnosis or list of symptoms that are decreasing your quality of life,” Benenhaley said.

Though an ESA can help decrease unwanted symptoms, there are still challenges with having a pet on campus and factors that students considering an ESA should keep in mind.

“It can be difficult,” Benenhaley said. “Macchiato went through a teething fit and chewed through some of my things. Also, expenses pile on. Rabbits aren’t cheap at all.”

But to Benenhaley, the good outweighs the bad.

“I wake up in the morning and he runs circles around me to greet me,” she said. “He just makes me feel like I’m wanted, and that’s a big thing for me. His silly personality keeps me going when I’m feeling incredibly low.”

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Emotional support animals help students cope