You’re just settling into college life. You’ve got a pretty nice dorm room, and all you need now is a pet to make the place feel nice and homey. But please — think again.
Back when I was working at a local college, I used to see lots of animals wandering around campus. Cats, mostly — they were, after all, easier to sneak into the dorms. But a lot of the cats had been left behind by the students who had so enthusiastically adopted them in the first place. Maria, the cleaning lady, would find them left behind in the dorm rooms at the end of the semester.
I helped her find homes for 3 of them. But I’m sure that Maria — a kind, thoughtful woman and the patron saint of abandoned animals — saved even more of them on her own.
The Best of Intentions
To be fair, I don’t believe that any student walks into a cat shelter and says airily, “I need a cat/dog/whatever to get me through the semester, and then I won’t need it anymore.” The problem is, a lot of students just don’t think things through.
“The companionship pets give and the sense of responsibility for another living thing will boost your spirits,” Lorraine Savage writes. “Pets also give students a sense of home as well as a sense of community with other pet owners. Colleges are realizing the emotional boost and confidence students get from pets.”
But students also have to remember, as Savage quickly points out, that having a pet comes with responsibility — that they can’t let their busy schedules “distract them from their ‘duty to feed, clean, amuse your pet and have the finances to provide medical care.’” And let’s not forget the other expenses: decent-quality pet food, litter boxes and cat litter or — in the case of rabbits and rodents — shavings for their cages.
It doesn’t stop there. Dorm life may prove to be way too stressful for some animals. Dogs need to be walked regardless of whether you have a term paper due. Cats aren’t as low maintenance as many people think and require attention, too.
“A cat — every cat — deserves to be considered family rather than replaceable property,” insists Franny Syufy, “and if that concept eludes you, a cat is probably not for you.” Rabbits cannot be allowed to run free unless you’re prepared to deal with chewed-up computer and lamp cords. And with all the comings and goings in a dorm room, it’s all too easy for a pet to slip out.
I’ve been on both sides of this issue. When I went away to college, I adopted a lovely little gray kitten from a small rescue group. The kitten lived happily in the dorm for several weeks until she escaped into the room of a resident adviser — who also happened to be highly allergic to cats.
My newfound friend went back to the rescue group, and I had to wait till I went home to get my cat fix. Looking back, I realize that the story could’ve had a far more awful ending: I was in a 4th-floor room, and there were no screens/storms on the windows. The fact that she didn’t take a flying leap through one of those windows and use up all 9 lives at once was nothing short of a miracle.
It’s Not All About You
A number of colleges and universities now allow pets. Well, some types of pets.
- The University of Notre Dame and Duke University allow fish tanks, but carnivorous fish are frowned upon.
- Lehigh University allows cats and dogs, but only in the sororities and fraternities — and they must receive proper veterinary care.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has 4 dorms with designated cat-friendly areas.
- Middlebury College allows small rodents and fish, but ferrets and snakes need not apply.
- Turtles, hamsters and gerbils get in at Harvey Mudd College, but only if your roomie approves.
A little more than a year ago, a post appeared online arguing for pets in college dorms. The author, a college student named Erika Taukert, argued that “[h]aving pets teaches responsibility”; relieves stress, depression and loneliness; and helps you bond with your roommate and make friends.
Yes, animals can do these things — though I have some serious doubts about the roommate bonding. Roommates are, as someone told me many years ago, the people you come to know the best and trust the least. But these lessons in human-animal bonding need to start taking place before kids go to college.
The other thing that disturbs me about Taukert’s post is that the focus is on what your pet can do for you and not on what you can do for your pet. “If the college refers to us as adults who are capable of taking out student loans for their overpriced education, then we should have the right to have pets in our dorms,” she argues. But the 2 are not comparable. Having a pet is both a privilege and a responsibility — it is not a right.
Listen to these college students’ experiences with pets at college:
Exceptions to the Rule
Obviously, there are times when college students need their animal companions in the dorms. Guide dogs come to mind. So do pets who, in the words of University of California Berkeley psychologist Aaron Cohen, have been “trained to respond to specific patient needs.” These responses could range from “alert[ing] patients who’ve missed their medications” to calming “a patient with bipolar disorder who’s on the verge of a manic episode.”
And then there are emotional support animals. This isn’t as clear-cut an area, but “[e]motional support animals are gaining acceptance,” observes Cohen. “It’s a balancing act. We need to maintain guidelines, but we also want to support students. Further[more], it’s the law. Under the Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing Acts, service and support animals must be accommodated if there is a documentation of need.”
There you have it — a few really good reasons to have pets on campus and some (in my opinion) not-so-good ones. So proceed with caution, please — there’s an animal’s life involved.
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