Emotional support animals at Mercer: Is it worth the “paw”cess?


Tiffanie Fraley

Tiffanie Fraley and Moose hanging out.

Echo walks on Greek Row at Mercer University and greets her friends coming out of classes. She has been a resident at Mercer for several months now and her experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Echo is a golden retriever puppy.

Student Angel Terry received accommodations for Echo to live with in her dorm room as an emotional support animal, or ESA.  Unlike service animals, which are specially trained to perform a task or service for a person with a disability, ESAs provide emotional support and are not required to have any special training.

There has been an exponential increase in the number of people of all ages claiming ESAs, leading health care providers and advocates to worry that abuse of the system is hurting people with legitimate needs. They cite the rise of “ESA mills” that will provide quick assessment and clinician documentation over the phone.  In 2018, the Georgia Senate commissioned a study to examine the problem.

Under Mercer’s policy, a student requesting an ESA must have “an established professional relationship” with a mental healthcare professional who will provide detailed documentation of the student’s disability and its impact.

Terry struggled with social anxiety for several years before taking the advice of her therapist to get an ESA.

“I had a problem with just staying in my room, and not wanting to go anywhere,” Terry said. “Now, I’m not focusing on what happened in my daily life that’s bringing me down.  I can focus on someone else.” 

While Terry is not allowed to bring Echo into her classes or other buildings on campus, she can take her on daily walks and hang out with her on grassy areas. 

“I tried to socialize her when she was younger so that she wouldn’t have anxiety around people,” Terry said.  “Everyone loves her, she’s really good.” 

Terry worked with her therapist to get all of the necessary documents to get Echo approved for campus living.  She said the process was generally positive, but other students report having a harder time navigating the accommodations requirements.  

Biology major Tiffanie Fraley adopted her Labrador retriever Moose almost two years ago, but missed out on most of Moose’s puppy days due to complications with the accommodation request. Fraley said she gathered the basic documentation that most housing companies need to accept an ESA, but Mercer still  required her to go through an interview with the office of access and accommodations.

“The interview itself stressed me out,” Fraley said. “It’s a lot of pressure, especially when you’re having to talk about your mental health with strangers.”

Mercer requires an interview for all students wishing to receive accommodations, but Fraley felt the staff’s tone was accusatory rather than inquisitorial.  She said they asked what makes her anxious, but she felt uncomfortable offering an answer.

“I felt like they were trying to invalidate my mental illnesses,” Fraley said. “If I have anxiety and I have a doctor sign off on that, who I can prove I’ve been meeting with for over a year, I don’t understand why I need to prove anything further.”

On Mercer’s website it says, “The Access Office seeks to quickly review students’ files within ten business days.” Fraley said it took six months of documentation and review in order to get Moose certified as an ESA. 

Despite the wait, she said it was worth it.

“I really use academic validation to validate myself, so when I’m doing bad in school, I often think badly of myself,” Fraley said. “Even if I am having a really stressful week, I’m never alone. He’s there for me, and he’s always happy to see me. He has the waggiest tail and, it’s like, how can I be upset?”

Fraley said in the fall she will live at the Lofts at Mercer, which meets the on-campus residency requirement for sophomores and juniors but is privately owned and managed.  She said she would rather pay the $500 non-refundable pet fee than go through the process of renewing her ESA accommodations.