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The Best Pets for College Students

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So You’re Going Away to College…

by David F. Kramer


Going away to college is the start of a grand adventure. For many students, it may be the first time they will be spending time away from home and family. It also may be the first time spent away from a beloved family pet. The feelings of homesickness can easily be compounded when you’re also missing a lifelong animal companion.


While it’s probably not possible to bring your family pet to school, you might be thinking about adopting a new friend to keep you company in your dorm room or off-campus housing. But before you make the choice to share your life with a new companion animal, there are many things to consider. 

Who Decides Which Pet is Right for You?

If you do an internet search for “colleges that allow pets,” you will rarely find a list of more than 25 entries, and a lot of crossover in the lists. With upwards of 4,700 colleges and universities across the United States, this is certainly a slim minority of schools that allow pets. If you factor in limits on pet type and other policies, it becomes even more of an uphill battle. However, with a little research and an open mind, it might not be as difficult to share college life with a pet as you might think.


Allowing pets on campus isn’t exclusive to rural and small schools. MIT, UCLA, University of Pennsylvania, Caltech, SUNY, Vassar, Duke, and Notre Dame, amongst others, allow some types of pets. The policies that govern these factors can vary widely. Some schools have pet-specific dorms, while others put it to a vote—be that dorm-wide or for just a single floor.


While many college dorms allow aquariums for fish, and sometimes reptiles and other small animals, these are often restricted to tanks of 10 gallons and under. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are permitted, but they are generally limited to dogs alone. In recent years, comfort and therapy animals have made great strides in this direction, but no across-the-board government standards have been instated. While such animals may be permitted under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), not all dorms are considered housing, regardless of whether the schools are federally funded or not.


At the very least, if you’re rooming with someone you’ve never met, most pets will need to be mutually decided on, because, after all, you never know what fears or allergies your roomie may be challenged with. However, this can be a great opportunity to have a pet that you and your dorm mate can share in companionship, love, and responsibility.

Defeat Anxiety With These Natural Stress Relievers

While the health and welfare benefits of pet ownership are widely documented in pet circles, in recent years colleges and universities have also been taking note. In addition to allowing pets on campus, some schools have gone as far as to have animals visit for a bit of “puppy therapy” for study-weary students.


Harvard and Yale have taken this concept a step further—where students can “check out” a dog as they might a library book. Some school libraries and other facilities have pets in residence that are also great ways for students to blow off steam.


Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania looks back fondly at his days in veterinary school in the company of animals. “When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, most of us had pets. With stress at an all-time high, our pets provided us with an outlet, be that in play time, exercise, or a lick on the face.”


Never underestimate the restorative power of giving a good belly rub!

Fish: What Do We Do? We Swim

Fish would seem to be the most obvious choice for the dorm room. Most schools have a 10 gallon limit for aquariums, so it’s best to think small all the way around. That means a handful of fish, a few plants, and a decoration or two for good measure.


While it might seem like nitpicking, remember that running filters do make a bit of noise, including the bubbling of the cycling water. While this drone might seem relaxing at first, the pressure of studying for midterms or finals can make almost any sound feel like an annoyance. If the fish are yours, why not offer to pay for the coffee and snacks needed for a healthy library study session for you and your roommate?  


A good choice for a dorm aquarium might be one of the many all-in-one micro, mini, or nano aquariums. These generally hold between one and five gallons and come complete with a ready-made plug in filter, heater, and other needed items.


The down-side of these setups is that such a small environment is easily disrupted. Even the addition of a single fish, plant, or decorative piece of coral can throw things off balance. So, you will need to check pH, ammonia and nitrite/nitrate levels, water hardness, and alkalinity pretty regularly. The water will also need to be cleaned often, even with a filter in place, as a single overfeeding can cause quite a mess. 

Reptiles: They're Cold, But They Make Great Roommates

Another good choice for a dorm pet is a reptile. There are any number of docile reptiles to choose from. When it comes to snakes, the schools that allow them generally have a length limit of around five feet. With a maximum tank size of 10 gallons, it certainly would be a poor choice to have a snake of that size in such a small enclosure, so pythons, boas, and similar snakes are probably not the best idea for a dorm. Smaller, dorm-friendly species include the Milk Snake, Corn Snake, Garter Snake, or Kingsnake, which come in a vast array of beautiful patterns and are generally very docile.


Most reptiles are carnivorous—in fact, all snakes are carnivores—so some of these might require live food (e.g., rats, mice, crickets). Even if they take food that has been pre-killed, you will still need a place to store future meals. A mini-fridge with a freezer compartment should do fine, but that depends upon your roommate’s feelings on dead mice and ice cubes being kept in close quarters together.


Small lizards, frogs, turtles, and tortoises all make for fine dorm pets. They are fun to watch and handle, are quiet, and don’t make too much of a mess. Turtles also have the benefit of being one of the least scary members of the reptile family and can also be safely left alone for long periods of time (days, not weeks). They will, however, need sufficient heating and lighting to thrive. As with most pets, escape is always a possibility, but a secure and lockable enclosure lid will prevent this.

Cute and Snuggly Exotics: The Original Pocket Monsters

Hamsters, gerbils, Guinea pigs, mice, fancy rats (and plain pet rats) can all make good college pets. They do well in small enclosures and can be left alone for several hours at a time. Most small rodents don’t mind being handled and enjoy a good cuddle; rats in particular have a high level of intelligence and patient owners can even teach them some tricks by offering food as a reward during training.


While not common, there are some allergy issues with guinea pigs and other rodents, making your roommate’s approval an important consideration. Also, guinea pigs make a lot of communicative sounds in the form of clicks, squeaks, and whines. So, if you’re not into having detailed conversations with your pet or need absolute quiet for studying, you might want to opt for a rodent of a different stripe.


While rodents are generally quiet, an hour’s run on a squeaky exercise wheel while you and your roommate are cramming for finals might be enough to send you both off the rails. Just remove the wheel until the study drama has passed. 

Small Breed Dogs

When it comes to having a pet like a dog in a dorm or college setting, there are many things to consider. While most everyone likes to play and snuggle with a dog, not quite as many like to take it for late night walks or clean up after accidents. On a dorm floor where everyone is pet friendly, a communal dog could work, but too often, everyone seems to think that everyone else is taking care of its needs, resulting in neglect, or too many people take care of its needs (e.g.,in the form of snacks). It’s not enough to “have” a dog; you need to be responsible for all of its care. Of course, a dog getting loose is also an issue.


Dogs don’t like to be left alone for long periods and dorm rooms can be very confining. Any animal, no matter how peaceful, might get stir-crazy and lash out and be destructive, and should there be any damage done to the room, it will be the owner (that’s you) who will be stuck with the bill.


Another factor to consider: All dogs have unique personalities and temperaments, and these traits often don’t translate into being good pets for college students. Whether a dog will be a barker, a howler, anxious, or fearful may be unknown until after you have taken him home. Your fellow students won’t appreciate a barking, whining, or howling dog when they are trying to sleep or study.


One of the biggest benefits to consider? A dog is your perfect go-to excuse for everything. Not in the mood for a party or don't want to admit that you don't have money to go out for a pint? "The dog needs me at home." Done. On the other hand, dogs are also the best for breaking the ice and making new friends.



Pets Promote Stronger Human-to-Human Bonds

Cats - Purrs the Word

A cat in a college setting has many of the same issues as dogs. Cats do fare better when left alone for longer periods of time than dogs, given they don’t need to be walked and they sleep most of the day, but they can be just as destructive as dogs when they’re bored and lonely. Cats still need attention and play time with you, but it's a lower-key play than with dogs.


Frustrated cats are also more likely to try to escape. According to Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania, the biggest issue is keeping cats inside. “I would strongly say that pet cats on college campuses should stay indoors and have no outdoor access. If they venture outdoors, they are more likely to get into toxins, have traumatic injuries, acquire fleas, and develop urine marking tendencies.” Just because the cat really did eat (or pee on) your homework doesn’t mean that it will be accepted as a good excuse by your profs.


Having a pet run away is not a stress that anyone needs, especially in tandem with all of the stresses that come from college. A wandering, lost dog is more likely to be returned, but a lost cat will more likely be viewed as a stray, even if it’s wearing a collar.


The biggest pro: Purring. There is growing evidence that it really does heal and calm humans. But be careful—purring kittens can be addictive. 

What If You Can’t Have a Pet At College?

What all of this boils down to is knowing yourself as a student. In addition to new experiences, college can also bring new concerns and stresses. In all situations, a pet is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. If you’re unsure as to how you’ll react to college life, it might be best to wait a semester or two to see how you’re doing. Your pet won’t understand if you forget to feed it when the study pressure is on.


If you’re unsure whether you’ll be able to handle owning a pet while attending college, perhaps you can get your pet fix by making time to volunteer for your local animal shelter. And in four (or so) years, celebrate your success by giving yourself a pet as the best graduation present ever!



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