You knew it had to happen: University students with disabilities are now allowed to keep “comfort animals,” as the New York Times reports. But why?

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 is (you guessed it) a dog and Carl is a rabbit in a pen under the bed.

One student had a pig. “The other students thought the pig was kind of cool, but less cool when it began to smell.”

Pigs do that.

Eventually, both moved off campus. Custodians said the dorm room’s carpeting had been chewed-up, the furniture gnawed and closet doors knocked off.

Pigs do that too. Trust me. When I stayed on the farm as a child sixty years ago, one of my “jobs” was to pull up weeds and throw them into the pigsty.

No one thought of keeping pigs in the house. No one thought of them as companions either.

So what is going on here?

Years ago, there used to be counselling services and ministries to help with emotional or mental difficulties. There probably still are.

But the main expectation was that one’s peers would provide camaraderie.

A student who wanted to keep pets was expected to live off campus because residences are not designed with Fido in mind. An informal exception was usually made for trained service dogs.

Apart from the obvious example of service dogs, there is no established benefit to keeping animals to address health needs. Or, as the Times article put it,

Research on the therapeutic value of animals is limited. Some studies have shown that they can provide a short-term benefit, particularly in reducing anxiety and depression. A long-term therapeutic benefit, however, has not been definitively established by randomized control trials.

My guess is that it never will be, because some people click with animals and some don’t. And it has come out that some therapists will issue students letters for a fee, claiming that the student “needs” the animal for emotional support.

Now, there is a clear benefit to the use of therapy dogs in hospitals and pet visits in retirement homes. But the benefit is precisely that the patients or residents, who can’t keep pets in their rooms, needn’t lose touch with animals.

Last summer, at my father’s retirement home, volunteers even brought miniature horses onto the patio, a boon to my father, who grew up with horses.

What’s really going on here? Well, animals have simpler emotional needs than people, so managing a relationship with an animal is easier. But that has always been true. So what has changed?

The new factor is that, increasingly, students constantly tippy-tap on electronic devices. According to Pew Research Center (2013), “37 percent of teenagers, ages 12 to 17, have a smartphone, an increase from 23 percent reported in 2011.”

That limits not only their time, but increasingly, their ability to communicate face to face:

British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has warned that smartphones risk making children borderline autistic: Children struggle to read emotions and are less empathetic than a generation ago because they spend too much time using tablets and smartphones, a leading psychiatrist has warned. Iain McGilchrist said children as young as five were less able to read facial expressions because of too much interaction with technology.

He added that he had evidence that more pupils were displaying borderline “autistic” behaviour. Dr McGilchrist, a former Oxford literary scholar who retrained in medicine, said he had heard of increasing numbers of teachers who had to explain to their pupils how to make sense of human faces. More. ]

So fellow dormers may be unable to establish the level of communication whereby people learn how to help each other in tough times. Dogs, by contrast, are quite good at reading human facial expressions.

Meanwhile, one wonders what the world will be like when the tippy tappers graduate.

Like I always say, no wonder Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent.

A genuine therapy dog at work:


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...