Furry Friends Join College Lives

An all-white cat scurried across the floor, chasing an illuminated red dot projected from a handheld laser pointer. Abruptly, she stopped moving, curling her two front paws back under her body. Her whole body began to wiggle as she prepared to attack. Suddenly she pounced on the dot, her paws landing on it, but it had disappeared. She moved her paws, frantically searching the floor for the dot. The dot was gone.

Her name is Lyla and she is one of thousands of emotional support animals found on college campuses across the country. 

Her owner Kristyn Penera adopted her two years ago from a seller on Craigslist. When Kristyn adopted her, Lyla was fearful and untrusting of people. It took Kristyn almost a year for Lyla to fully trust her. These weren’t the only struggles Kristyn faced when she first adopted Lyla, and by all means, might have been the simplest of them. 

 Lyla is completely deaf.

Penera’s emotional support cat Lyla. Image provided by Kristyn Penera.

Penera said that there was a difficulty when they first began living together because they had to find ways to communicate with each other. Getting the attention of a deaf cat is hard, meaning Penera has had to physically approach Lyla to get her to stop whatever mischief she may have decided upon for any given day. After living with her for two years now, they have found their own unique ways to communicate. 

“I think we have a system. She knows that the mirror’s on the back of the door so when I come back from class, the light from the sun off of the mirror reflection will shine that light in her face so she’ll get up because she sees the shift in the light,” said Penera. Tapping a platform or pushing down on soft surfaces that Lyla is on gets her attention as well. She is able to feel the vibrations from Penera and in turn, Lyla knows to look. It was difficult for them to reach the point of trust. “She came from a really messed up home so she and I had to build up a lot of trust over a year and now that we’ve built that, she knows that when I’m there, she’s fine and she will be protected and taken care of,” said Penera.

There have been other struggles in owning an animal in a college dorm, the size of the rooms being one of them. “Because I have a single, it’s just her and I, so she can do her thing so she has free roam of the entire space,” said Penera, “When I’m not there, I feel like it kind of sucks for her because she’s stuck in a 10 by 10 room for hours on end.”

Lyla has been able to find ways to keep herself busy while Kristyn is at work or class. One of her favorite activities is to look out the window. Penera also leaves the cat TV on during the day so that Lyla is never bored. Penera said that Lyla will find objects lying around the room and swat at them to entertain herself.  

The impact that both Penera and Lyla have had on each other make the growing pains worth it though.

“Having her has genuinely changed who I am,” said Penera, 

Having another life that depended on Penera helped her to take care of herself, because knowing that Lyla needs Penera motivates her to take care of herself for Lyla.

“There were a lot of really really bad times since I’ve had her, like areas where it’s just not been well or I’ve had a struggle, and now that I do have her, my mindset is a lot different,” said Penera, “I’m like I do need to care for myself because I have her and I can’t leave her.”

Penera and Lyla lay together. Image provided by Kristyn Penera.

There is scientific evidence behind the idea that having an emotional support animal can improve mental and physical well-being. According to the Animal Health Foundation, pets are proven to lower levels of the stress triggered hormone, cortisol. The National Institute of Mental Health has also found that being in the presence of animals has had a positive effect on those who struggle with depression. Emotional support animals can improve physical health as well, especially dogs, as they need to be taken care of on a daily basis, which includes walking and playing. 

Daniel Caulkins, a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, adopted his black labrador retriever puppy Finn in June 2022, just before returning to college for his sophomore year. He found Finn through his friend. 

Caulkin’s emotional support dog Finn. Image provided by Daniel Caulkins.

Finn, however, is not his first emotional support animal. In the spring semester of his first year he brought his first dog Betty to college. She was a short black dog with white spots around her face and chest and a pair of pointy ears. The summer after his first year, Betty was hit by a car and died. This led Caulkins to Finn.

Although living with a puppy, especially in a small area, is difficult. 

“Sometimes you need space to just not be on top of each other,” said Caulkins.

Finn chews on his bone on the bed- Image provided by Daniel Caulkins.

Some might think that space would be an issue for Kiana Cevallos who has not one, but two emotional support animals but Cevallos has been able to make it work. 

“I do have a spacious room with two windows so my cat gets two different views,” said Cevallos, “My ferret is really small so the room, for her, it’s like a whole adventure.”

One of the animals she has is a ferret named Nelly. She adopted Nelly when she was 7 months old, 7 whole years ago.

Cevallos’ emotional support ferret Nelly. Image provided by Kiana Cevallos.

The other pet she has is a gray-striped cat named Herbs, full name: Herbalicious. She adopted Herbs when she was 3 years old from the Elmore SPCA last spring. Herbs was surrendered because her previous owners were unable to properly care for her. Herbs is extremely shy and prefers to stay in the room which makes her ideal for an emotional support animal, as they are not allowed to leave their designated rooms unless it’s to go outside.

Cavellos’ other emotional support animal Herbalicious. Image provided by Kiana Cevallos.

Although having two emotional support animals is not a normal case, the college allowed Kiana to keep both due to personal conflicts at home.

Kiana said that she has struggled with anxiety and moving back in after the pandemic, most of her classes were online. She wouldn’t leave her room often and the company of Nelly helped her through that. 

“Now that I have the cat, it is like having double entertainment and motivation in the morning.” said Cevallos. 

That is what her emotional support animals were able to provide. They would motivate her to get up in the morning because she had to feed them and she would take time to play with them everyday. From waking up early to take care of them, she has found extra time to complete assignments and study. 

Even just living around an emotional support animal can have the same benefits as owning one. Kayla Lester has lived with two different emotional support animals and living with these animals has changed her college life. 

Lester now lives with a puppy and she enjoys it. She looks forward to going to her room everyday, because inside is a dog that is excited to see her and greets her with licks. Lester said that she gets the same experience from living with the dog as she would from owning one.  

The number of emotional support animals on campuses has risen in recent years, in part because of covid. SUNY Plattsburgh’s Director of the Accessibility Resources Office, Jennifer Curry, has seen all kinds of animals become ESAs ranging from cats and dogs to birds and reptiles. 

“Since the pandemic, we’ve seen quite an increase in students,” said Curry, “I think it’s because a lot of people have found that therapeutic value in being with their animals.”

Having a little animal friend around a college dorm, whether it be feathered, scaled or furry, has countless positive benefits. Although being approved for an emotional support animal differs from campus to campus, living with an animal in a dorm room is not impossible and may be easier than students believe.

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