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Cats Go to College

By Jennifer Viegas

Cats Go to College

When I was a college student, my peers and I longed for kitty “coeds” that could provide welcome companionship and a warm reminder of home life. Pets were not permitted on campus then, but new research supports what we suspected all along: Ownership of pets -- especially cats -- can benefit college students. Sara Staats, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Newark, and colleagues Heidi Wallace and Tara Anderson determined that pets are an important source of social support to college-age students. They asked both faculty members and university students to fill out a survey on this matter and were often pleasantly surprised by the results.

Why College Cats Help
The most common reason given for pet ownership by students was, “I would be lonely without my pet.” Says Dr. Staats: “You would think that hectic social schedules would provide students with more than enough companionship, but pets appear to offer a different, perhaps more nonjudgmental, form of support.” Both students and faculty also reported that their pet keeps them active and helps during the more difficult times.

Based on their responses, freshmen seemed to value the benefits of pet ownership the most. “One may speculate that university freshmen have acquired fewer coping resources than adults, being in a transition period where they are somewhat separated from family and high school friends and have not yet formed a social support network in their college lives,” the researchers theorize.

But even faculty members and adult locals who also took the survey provided similar responses. “I was surprised that some cat owners said their pet helped to keep them active,” Dr. Staats says. “We expected this would hold true for dog owners, but cats? And you wouldn’t think students would be concerned about staying active, due to their busy lives.”

Cats Often OK, Dogs Not
Although I fondly remember a Latin professor’s dog that often sat through long lectures, campuses that do allow pets in dorm rooms usually only approve of cats, fish and sometimes other small, caged animals. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, allows just cats in four specified dorms. Their pet policy explains that “we want to limit the number of people with allergies that will be affected by the presence of the pets. Also, it will be very easy to tell if a cat is being cared for properly, whereas it is more difficult to see if a hamster or iguana is.”

Karen Nilsson, MIT’s senior associate dean of residential life, suggests that having the cat policy has helped keep things under control, since housing officials there previously found dogs, frogs, snakes, turtles, rats, rabbits and even weasels stashed away in dorms. Officials at other colleges were horrified to find hedgehogs and even scorpions in student rooms.

Additional universities that have, at least in the past, officially allowed certain pets on campus include the California Institute of Technology, the State University of New York at Canton, and Shimer College, in Waukegan, Ill. Shimer was one of the first in the nation to establish a pet policy, giving the all clear to certain cats.

The Dos and Don’ts of Cats in College
Dr. Staats and other experts advise the following:

Do check with the university or college to see what, if any, rules are in place concerning pets on campus.

Don’t offer a pet as a gift to a dorm-residing student. “Not all people want and can care for pets,” Dr. Staats explains. “Pet ownership is a big responsibility that requires careful consideration and planning.”

Do obtain the consent of all roommates, and even floor mates, before bringing a cat into a feline-friendly college. Many universities require written consent from such individuals.

Don’t bring a pet to college -- even if it’s legal -- if you won’t have sufficient time to interact with the cat. Even if you can provide the basics, such as food and health care, felines get lonely, too.

Do explore other ways of obtaining the benefits of time spent with cats, if pets are not allowed in your dorm room, apartment or other living situation. “Sometimes volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter can be just as rewarding,” Dr. Staats says.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.

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Posted on March 10, 2009

Jay says: I think people should never be allowed to keep birds in dorms. I wanted to kill my neighbor!

Posted on March 23, 2009

a.r.c. says: Cinder's story is heartwarming, but as a former employee of an animal shelter, I have to say that in my experience, it is an exception. We didn't keep this kind of statistics, but during the years I worked there we had countless pets given up to us by parents whose college student kids had brought home an animal they'd gotten at school, then come home and dumped on the parents while they went elsewhere. On Patricia McConnell's radio show, "Calling All Pets," I heard a young man who was distressed because he'd reclaimed his dog, whom he'd gotten in school, then left with his parents for 7 years while he found himself, wasn't adjusting well to her new life with him. Gee, I wonder why. I don't think anyone should adopt a pet until they are settled, or are mature enough (as your son was, amy) to make a lifetime committment to that animal.

Posted on March 5, 2009

Gina C. says: Amy, your story about Cinders is so sweet and touching. May Cinders rest in peace. Your son was blessed to have such a wonderful pet and to experience a wonderful bond with Cinders.

Posted on March 7, 2009

margie says: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Your son persued what he enjoyed most & I think Cinders sensed this as well. Your story is touching.

Posted on March 4, 2009

Amy B. says: 19 years ago, I took 3 kids to pick out one cat at the local Humane Society. Our oldest son was of an age that he knew what happened to cats that weren't adopted. We chose a kitten, but my oldest son was haunted by an "ugly" kitten that he knew had little chance for adoption. I made him a promise that we would go back on that kitten's "last day" and would adopt her if she was still there. She was, so we ended up with 2 cats. Cinders, the "ugly kitten, bonded with my son as though she knew he had been the one to save her. And when he left for college in another state, both mourned. After 6 months in the dorm, my son said he had to have her live with him and swore that he would find a place to live next semester where he could keep her. True to his word, Cinders moved in with him the following year. She stayed with him for the last 3 years of undergraduate school and moved to yet another state for grad school. Both thrived. But time moved on and this faithful friend grew old and delicate while our son grew up and was ready to move on. We debated about what to do with her in the face of yet another move, and this one to a drastic change in climate. It was with extreme reluctance that our son decided to return her home for her final years. He was home this past Christmas and it was like old times for the two of them. But it was also apparent that this was their final reunion. I think they said their goodbyes to each other. I am preparing to put her down this week to end her suffering. She does not deserve to suffer after serving us all so well for so long. But it breaks my heart to share this news with our son. The original cat we chose died years ago. It's strange how things work out, sometimes. Our son is now a wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida. His beloved cat will be buried in Minnesota. Our pets influence our lives in ways we never imagine. It hurts at the end but we are so much the better for it. Farewell, Cinders, and thanks so much for enriching our lives.

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