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 long periods of 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.
Most colleges do not allow pets in their dorms, and if you factor in limits on pet type and other policies in those that do, 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 ten 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.
If you are set on attending a particular school and that school doesn’t allow the type of pet you want to have, off-campus housing may solve your dilemma, but you could still run into limitations set by potential landlords and roommates. At the very least, most pets will need to be mutually agreed upon amongst the people you are sharing space with, no matter where you live. 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 roommate can share with regards to companionship, love, and responsibility.
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—students can “check out” a dog from the library (don’t worry, the dogs remain safely in their “offices” where patrons visit them for 30 minutes at a time). Some 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.”
Fish would seem to be the most obvious choice for the dorm room. Most schools have a ten gallon limit for aquariums, so it’s best to think small all the way around. That means a handful of tiny 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. 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 to fuel a library study session away from the tank for you and your roommate?
A good choice for a dorm aquarium might be one of the small, all-in-one aquariums. These can hold as little as one to five gallons of water 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 tiny environment is easily disrupted. Small changes 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 replaced often. Even with a filter in place, debris and waste material builds up quickly.
Another potential good choice for a dorm pet is a reptile. When it comes to snakes, the schools that allow them generally have a length limit of around five feet. Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian in Fort Collins, Co says “small, dorm-friendly species include the Milk Snake, Corn Snake, Garter Snake, and Kingsnake.” These snakes come in a vast array of beautiful patterns and are generally very docile. Coates adds that for the most part, these species of snakes “can live happily in relatively small tanks (20-30 gallons or so) as adults.”
All snakes are carnivores and some 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 having dead (or live) prey around the house.
Small lizards, turtles, and tortoises all make for fine dorm pets. They are fun to watch and handle, are quiet, don’t make too much of a mess, and many species eat mostly plant material; but Coates warns that some species can grow to be surprisingly large. “Potential owners should always know the expected adult size of the species they are interested in to avoid problems in the future.”
Turtles also have the benefit of being one of the least scary members of the reptile family and can be safely left alone for several days at a stretch. They will, like all reptiles, 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.
Hamsters, gerbils, Guinea pigs, mice, fancy rats (and plain rats) can all make good college pets. They do well in relatively small enclosures and can be left alone for most of the day without becoming stressed.
Most pet 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. The downside? Coates says that “rodents do better in groups (or at least in pairs) which increases the size of cage that you’ll need and the frequency that you’ll have to be cleaning it.”
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 quieter species. And keep in mind that a 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.
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.
Coates tells this story about her days as an undergrad. “I adopted a small mixed-breed dog in my second year at college. There were many times when I had to change my plans to suit his needs. And I can’t say that I enjoyed our regular ‘study breaks’ during which I waited in a raging blizzard while he found the perfect place to poop. Still, he was my best friend, and I can’t imagine my college (and many subsequent!) years without him.”
On a dorm floor where everyone is pet friendly, a communal dog could work, but too often, everyone seems to think that someone else is taking care of its needs, resulting in neglect. It’s not enough to “have” a dog; you need to be responsible for all of its care.
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, 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. And dogs are also the best for breaking the ice and making new friends.
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 do still get bored and lonely.
Frustrated cats are also more likely to try to escape. According to Denish, 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.” And having a pet run away is not a stress that anyone needs, especially in tandem with all of the stresses that come from college.
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 all of this boils down to is knowing yourself as a student and a person. 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 take care of 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 fix by making time to volunteer for your local animal shelter.