Should College Students Have Pets?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- When William Curtis, a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was winding down his studies at the end of the spring semester this year, he noticed something else was on the rise: the number of stray cats hanging around campus.

“My neighbor ended up adopting one of them and I am sure the rest of the residents ended up with one, unless the cats left for other places with food,” Curtis says.

Stray pets, particularly cats, are a problem around college campuses and many shelters report increases in their intake in May and December, at the end of each semester.

“Anecdotally, we’ve heard that the number of strays and animals going into shelters go up,” says Liz Finch, senior manager for community programs and services at the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. “There’s quite a lot of feral colonies (of cats) on college campuses; the dogs more than likely end up in shelters.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that 86% of pets that are surrendered to shelters are given up due to the owner’s life situation, such as not being able to care for it anymore, having too many animals or moving to a place that does not allow pets.

“If a college student is in an apartment, they are in a transitional phase of their life and it may not be the most responsible thing to get a pet at that time,” Finch says.

Experts say that not considering what they will do with their pet at the end of the semester and cost of the pet are two major factors that contribute to college students abandoning pets they’ve acquired while away at school.

Planning aside, the cost of caring for an animal can reach into the thousands per year, easily.

Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services for Petplan, a company that insures more than 100,000 pets, says removing a foreign object from a dog’s intestines can cost $1,000 or more and hip dysplasia, a common ailment for certain breeds, can cost thousands of dollars.

“Unfortunately, college students on a limited budget have nowhere to turn when confronted with these expenses and are sometimes forced to resort to abandoning their pets,” Benson says.

While many pets are indeed left to run wild on campus or are dumped into shelters, others do indeed find their way to the owner’s parent’s house, or with the college student if they will live in their own place after school lets out.

Finch says she was 22 when she adopted her first pet. “But I was committed to keeping it forever,” she says.

Dr. Jennifer Lander, director of medicine at the ASPCA Adoption Center, said that her own dog was a puppy she got while she was in college. “Many students also arrive back to their parent’s homes with pets in tow,” Lander says. “Working in private practice for many years, I can personally attest to many of the most beloved family pets having their dubious arrival into the family by way of a college student.”

Finch said that in addition to realizing that a pet is a lifelong commitment, not one that will last only as long as the semester, it is important to take into consideration the rules of the dorm or off-campus housing when considering a furry friend.

“Even though they may be missing their pets from home, if the dorm or apartment doesn’t allow pets, they are breaking the rules and if they are found out, they will have to get rid of it,” Finch says. “The student will have to realize they’re not suffering as much as their pets will if they are taken to a shelter.”

More on-campus college dorms are allowing pets on certain floors and in certain rooms, where students are matched with roommates based on pet compatibility and there are no allergy concerns.

Lander believes this is a good idea if the student has a clear commitment to the pet. “I do believe that colleges should create clear policies for pets allowed both on campus and in school housing,” Lander says. “By providing guidelines and access to care, the school will potentially be able to help offset problems associated with student pet ownership. Students that want pets are likely to acquire and keep them regardless of school regulations. It would be more helpful for schools to clearly outline expectations and allow for designated areas for pets to live on or visit on campus.”

Even if the dorms or apartment managers allow pets, says Finch, the most important things to consider when adopting a pet are:

  • Adopt a pet that fits your lifestyle. If you’re not home a lot or are not very active, a hyperactive dog – or maybe any dog – may not be a right fit. A cat may be more suitable, as it can be left alone for longer periods of time.
  • Consider the amount of space you will need.
  • Include a pet in your budget. Can you afford to properly feed and maintain the pet’s health?
  • When considering a dog, avoid young puppies. They need even more care that includes intense house training and behavior training.
  • Get a pet through a rescue group that will lend breed-specific training and support if needed.

The most important thing, Finch says, is making that commitment. Dogs can live from 8-15 years in general, and cats can live sometimes 15-20 years.

If after considering all the factors at play you decide that pet ownership is not the most responsible move to make, there are alternatives to bringing a dog into your dorm room.

The ASPCA recommends pet lovers check with local shelters or rescue groups for volunteer opportunities if you decide you cannot make the full-time, long-term commitment to a pet, but you still want one in your life.

Helping socialize, walk or visit with animals that don't have homes can help college students get their pet "fix," while helping animal-friendly organizations in their college towns. Finch warns, though, to do your homework and know what shelter or rescue group you’re getting involved with.

“Many people cannot volunteer at certain shelters,” Finch says. “People have different abilities to cope with what they see in shelters. I would caution students not to act on emotions and adopt just because a pet’s time is up.” There are plenty of rescue organizations and shelters that do not euthanize and that may be the better volunteer opportunity.

The ASPCA also recommends pet-sitting and/or walking opportunities. “Look for both volunteer or employment options on websites like ours at aspca.org,” Lander says.

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