WSU accomodates the mental health needs of particular students with dogs, cats and other stress-relieving pets


WSU works to accommodate for many types of service animals, and even provides dogs to pet for stress relief each semester during finals week.

When scrolling through social media, cat and dog videos or memes are sure to make people pause. A cuddly kitten or a cute puppy can make most days better.

This is because animals have been proven to make people both happy and healthy, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Cassandra Nichols said.

“It increases our norepinephrine, it increases the pleasure center parts of our brain,” she said. “All that petting and loving and hugging? It is very pleasurable at a neurological level. And it’s fun. People laugh and it’s goofy.”

Students can gain access animals in order to boost their morale. Sometimes referred to as psychiatric animals or emotional support animals, students can, with proper permission, have  a residence hall pet at Washington State University.

Although it is known that animals can make a person feel good, having an animal living in the residence halls is not the preferred method for treating a diagnosis.

“If they come to our Health and Wellness and it is for emotional difficulties, our physicians will say, ‘Go see the psychologists,’” Nichols said. “And then we will have an assessment and we’ll find out and often times, honestly, having a pet is not the best treatment. People may not have tried anything else. Let’s try these other things instead.”

For those who do find it necessary to have a service animal, dogs or small ponies wearing an accommodation vest are most commonly seen both on and off campus. These service animals have been specially trained and know how to accommodate a disorder.

The school also offers programs with the intention of letting people spend time with animals to relieve stress in controlled environments. The People Pet Partnership program and the Path to Success are both therapeutic horse riding programs included in this and are managed by WSU faculty members Phyllis Erdman and Sue Jacobson.

“My research interest is looking at human-animal interaction so my program is counseling and psychology,” said Erdman, executive associate dean for academic affairs. “That’s the program I teach in so I approach from the mental health perspective of how animals can contribute to improved stress, making people feel better and how that bond together between humans and animals can actually be beneficial to both the human and the animal.”

The riding programs are geared toward individuals with physical and mental deficiencies, as well as an aid in youth development.

Volunteers are needed for both programs and these often end up being either veterinarian students or those pursuing a degree in psychology. The psychology majors get to take a look at how the horses improve the mental state of the riders.

“For some of our riders, it’s a very kind of empowering kind of situation,” said Jacobson, director of the People Pet Partnership. “I mean, think about, if you are confined to a wheelchair, you spend your days with people, not figuratively, but literally, looking down on you. So you get them up on a horse … They are above people now; this one moment in their life, they’re the ones above looking down on their helpers.”

The animals provide a means for people to move, to interact better with other humans and to make them smile.

“If this adds a bit of happiness, a bit of bright spot to their week,” Jacobson said, “then we’ve accomplished something for them.”

WSU has taken the effect animals have seriously and offers an opportunity for students to de-stress in the company of cats and dogs each semester.

Taking a break from their finals and the cold weather, students can “Pet Your Stress Away” on from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Dec. 11 in the CUB. The event, which features animals from the Humane Society, is a popular one for the faculty as well.