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.

Adopt a Feline Friend for Life

When cat owner Amy Morgan adopted her second cat, Ruki, it was strictly the result of love at first sight. “A pet shelter had a cat fair set up on a street corner, and I walked by,” says the 33-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y. homeowner. “Ruki was so runty and adorable, and I had just had a Bloody Mary at brunch! I couldn’t resist. I filled out the paperwork and took him home.”

Seven years later, Morgan is still living happily with Ruki and her first cat, Mashy. But John Van Zante, spokesman for the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Sante Fe, Calif., doesn’t recommend the way Morgan went about things. “Adopting a pet is a lifetime commitment,” he says. “It’s a big decision that is best not made on a whim.” Below, Van Zante, who is also one of the organizers of the upcoming annual international pet adoption fair, Home 4 the Holidays, offers would-be-cat-adopters advice on the steps that should precede that commitment.

Step One: Think Lifetime
“Make sure you and your family are willing to make a lifetime commitment,” says Van Zante, who has seen his share of “surrendered” cats during 17 years at Helen Woodward. “It’s like going into a marriage -- you don’t want to be someone who tells himself ‘if it doesn’t work out I can always get a divorce.’” Van Zante suggests talking it out, either among family members who live in the household, or with close friends who know your lifestyle and may have thoughts on whether it can become animal friendly. Part of the discussion should also include economics: Can you realistically afford the upkeep, veterinary bills and feeding of an animal over the long haul?

Step Two: Debate the Merits of Cats
Cats are not the only house pet on the block. Birds, dogs, rabbits, snakes and more are other possibilities, so consider what you and your housemates (if you have them) might truly desire. “I’ve seen it before,” says Van Zante. “Mom, Dad, three kids come in. Two of the kids want a cat and suddenly the third has to have a dog.” He adds, “What should be the fun part -- picking out a pet -- ends up in a huge fight.” He suggests including discussions about all pet options into the lifetime commitment powwow.

Step Three: Cat Options
Do you want a cat or a kitten? How many do you want? Both of these are questions to pose before you head out to the adoption facility. “What are you or your family capable of?” asks Van Zante. “Do you want a mature cat that already knows the couch is not a scratching post, or will you be able to teach a kitten that yourself?” Van Zante adds that two kittens may be better than one for households whose members are often out. “Two does not mean twice the trouble. They amuse each other.”

Step Four: Where to Go 
Animal shelters, rescues and breeders all offer cats and kittens, though breeders come at a higher cost. Van Zante recommends shelters and rescues, and not only because of his employee affiliation. “At a shelter, the goal is to make a match, not a profit,” he explains. Shelter and rescue workers will work with you and your family to determine which of their felines will be a good match. “You tell them about your lifestyle and let them find you a pet that is right for you. If you have two little dogs at home, they won’t let you make the mistake of taking home a 16-pound cat that’s a bully.” Local animal shelters and rescues can be found on the Internet and in the yellow pages.

Step Five: Spend Time With the Cat
If you are hanging out near the cat’s crate in the shelter and your eyes start watering, and not for emotional reasons, pay attention. “If you have to surrender a cat you’ve fallen in love with a week after adoption because of allergies, it’s heartbreaking,” says Van Zante, who is allergic to his own short-haired furball, but puts up with the symptoms.

Make sure all the members of your household -- including your other pets -- spend time around the cat before the adoption is complete. If you already have a cat at home, for example, you need to know if it will even accept a new cat. For dog owners, does your canine feel comfortable around cats? If the shelter does home visits in preparation for the adoption, ask them to bring the adoptee.

Step Six: Before Bringing Home Baby
Invest in at least a weeklong supply of food. Shelter workers, or your breeder, can recommend a kitten or cat chow. Also have on hand a set of ceramic food and water bowls and a few starter toys. Decide on some basic cat rules with everyone in the household, such as whether or not the cat will have the full run of the house and who will take care of the feeding and litter box maintenance.

Hundreds of thousands of cats are in need of a good home. In six, pre-adoption steps, your own home can fit the bill. A lifetime of purring companionship will be your reward.

From Cat Lover to Loving Volunteer

Kitties howl for your attention, frantically gripping their tiny paws on iron rails, while neighboring cats attempt to ambush them. As paws swipe air or fur, a woman’s voice prevails over the chorus of meowing and wailing -- the woman standing nearby calls to the raucous felines, then turns to whisper soothingly to a kitten whimpering under her needle. Though not every cat is under such distress, all -- even the ones sleeping or cleaning themselves in peace -- have one thing in common: Living in rows of narrow cages, they resemble prisoners behind bars.

Many shelters house dozens of cats under crowded conditions, and it’s usually just a few volunteers that help manage the entire operation. These volunteers provide the only care and affection rescued homeless kitties receive at the shelters. I am one of these volunteers. My weekly visits to the cat shelter allow me to understand the cats’ needs, win their affection and treasure precious memories -- and, of course, gain enough firsthand wisdom to pass along to potential volunteers.

Cat Homelessness
In the United States, the stray cat problem is severe. According to Alley Cat Advocates online, in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, each resident would have to own 45 cats in order to resolve the homeless feline crisis there. Unfortunately, overwhelming stray cat statistics like this one haunt almost every region of the United States. But a two-owner New York venture has been doing its part, and more, since its inception in the mid-‘80s. According to kennel supervisor Jose Pagan, Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition (BARC) rescues over 1000 cats per year.

“Owners give up their pets because of allergies or lack of space at home,” says Pagan. “Others abandon them in front of the shelter. But the cats get tested by our veterinarian and are given proper care once they come in.” A valued resource for the area, BARC houses cats and enables about 40 adoptions each month -- always remaining a no-kill shelter.

A Decision to Volunteer
I didn’t know any of these facts when I decided to volunteer at an animal shelter. It wasn’t BARC’s contributions or even my animaltarian heart that made me wake up early on Saturdays for the long commute to Brooklyn. My reasons were less than holy: I had just signed up with New York Cares, an organization that mobilizes volunteers to meet community needs. As my first project, I was looking for something easy -- something a lot less scary than feeding possibly rambunctious homeless men or pacifying the unpredictable moods of children. Since I loved animals, I longed for laid-back Saturdays filled with the playful affection of spirited cats and adorable kittens.

It was only when I found myself on a side street of Brooklyn in front of the shabby building, the BARC sign inconspicuously hanging in the front, that I started wondering whether I had idealized this project. Inside, I climbed a narrow staircase that led to the room with the cats, and when I opened the door, instead of affection, I was greeted with the unwelcoming stench of day-old wet food and dirty cat litter. Cramped with rows of fretful felines encased in metal cages, the room had no windows and seemed too small for even the few people that were already there. Before I could change my mind about volunteering, a woman came forth and introduced herself as my team leader. With a friendly smile and a sense of urgency, she instructed me and a few other volunteers on how to clean each cat’s small home. This, as it turned out, involved dusting the kennel floor, replacing the newspaper covering it and replenishing supplies, such as litter, food and water. Once hygiene was taken care of, playtime would follow.

Although the distant promise of playtime combined with our team leader’s useful guidance pacified my disillusionment considerably, I was still surprised that not all cats welcomed us with open paws. Suffering from depression, feline AIDS and pre-shelter abuse, many of them attempted to relieve their anxiety on our defenseless arms as we reached in to grab a bowl or spread a fresh sheet of paper. Still, they were so desperate for a home that upon our slightest sign of friendliness, they embraced our love just as they wanted to be embraced themselves.

As for me, I was attached to the cats before playtime even started. Poignant cat “biographies” pinned on kennel doors won my heart, and as I worked, I started planning my return for an adoption. The following were my favorite kitty candidates:

Comforting Campbell Like the soup he is named after, Campbell was heartwarming from the start. Friendly and fluffy, he never stopped meowing and rubbing against my arms as I worked in his kennel. Once playtime started, Campbell was my first choice. He purred endlessly, eagerly pushing his way from the kennel into my lap.

Little 7Up A chunk of fur was missing from this tiny kitty’s forehead, which was spotted with dried blood. His history only revealed that he was five months old, to which I first attributed his walking off-balance and blinking from one eye. Later, I learned a more heartbreaking truth to his quirks: A fierce attack by a stray dog had left poor, defenseless 7Up a little brain damaged. The effects of the accident had neither decreased his need for attention nor affected his lopsided attempts to play.

Scaredy Sabrina Even as she huddled in the corner of her kennel, Sabrina was the most beautiful of all. Summoning courage after my experiences with Campbell and 7Up, I reached in to stroke her fur. But a stranger’s kind touch can’t overturn years of fright on the street, and I was greeted with Sabrina’s razor-edged claw. Blood drew on my palm, so for the rest of the time, I worshipped Sabrina from afar.

Back for More
Were I not living with two feline bundles of joy already, I would have loved to give some of these cats a home. So I did the next best thing: A week later, I returned to volunteer. To my surprise and initial tinge of sadness, only Campbell was still there. Thankfully, my other favorites had already found homes.

Nothing is more rewarding than knowing the cats you love are in safe hands. Despite kitty marks on my own hands after sessions at BARC, I never stopped volunteering.

It wasn’t just the gratifying feeling of helping out that brought me back, but also the cats themselves. To see a cat’s nature blossoming through its wounds is worth bearing a scratch or two -- as well as realizing that estranged animals deserve no less of our love than do homeless people.

Lessons of Feline Friendship
My love affair with the cats did not stop at the absence of 7Up and Sabrina. Each week, I fell in love with a new cat, and even now, the more I volunteer, the better I get at adapting to various cat personalities. It isn’t hard to befriend these cats, but sometimes, it takes a little extra patience to convince them that you mean no harm. It was only after a few unsuccessful attempts at pulling newspapers under stubborn cats that I learned to avoid brash movements. But it only took one beautiful yet ferocious feline’s swipe at me to learn that if a cat is too hard to handle, you shouldn’t handle it. “Start off with easier ones, like kittens, and someone more experienced will take over,” suggests Pagan.

Early on, I also discovered the importance of dressing comfortably and bringing allergy medicine. This, too, I found out the hard way, when on my first time volunteering, I spent a miserable last hour with red, puffy eyes and only the thought of the bottle of Benadryl that was still sitting on my kitchen counter for comfort. But all of it is common sense: A healthy and happy volunteer is always handier than a tense one. And a happy volunteer is a more giving volunteer. The most important thing is to return often, and if your budget allows it, to contribute to the shelter. Or even better, to take a cat -- or two -- home.

Although I asked around how to go about volunteering when I first got the idea, no one turned out to be better suited to help me than my own Internet search engine. If you, too, want to become a volunteer, do a quick search on the Web for local shelter listings, and then call a shelter near you to find out how to start. The overworked staff will value your time tremendously, and the lonely animals will treasure your attention and make you feel like their hero. After all, what’s more heroic than saving the world one cat at a time?