When new students leave home for college or university, mom and dad aren't the only ones left behind.
Kimberly Brubaker said she didn't want to break the connection she has with family members Dino and Mars: her cat and pet snake.
“If an animal is part of your entire life, and caring for them is a huge part of it, to take that away is pretty dramatic,” she told Associated Press.
So when Brubaker left home to attend Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, she brought Dino and Mars with her. College officials gave her permission to live with them in a school-owned dormitory.
In the United States, Eckerd is not the only school to accept pets in student housing, but it may have been one of the first. Since the early 1970s, the college has accepted many kinds of animals.
Brubaker heads a student organization that registers pets on campus. It ensures that the animals are well taken care of and that students follow Eckerd’s pet policies. And it tries to solve any disputes.
“We do pet checks once a month — we go around and knock on all the doors,” Brubaker said. The student group receives an average of one or two problem reports each month. But most issues are minor, such as misunderstandings of the rules governing pet registration.
Pets on campus are mostly problem-free and may help their owners and others.
Miranda Goodman-Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd, recently co-authored a study on the effect pets have on students.
Students reported their pets “reduced their levels of stress, and had incredibly favorable things to say about living with the animal,” Goodman-Wilson said. Also, a majority of students claimed that animals were a good influence on their educational performance.
“I think that for many students, having a pet provides a structure that they otherwise lack,” Goodman-Wilson noted. “If you have a dog who has to go out to the bathroom, that’s a powerful alarm clock right there.”
The results of her study were mixed when it came to measuring exactly how helpful pets were for the students’ mental health. She found that students who owned pets did not have lower levels of stress, depression, anxiety or nervousness.
But there was an effect when it came to somatic anxiety — the physical effects of stress, such as a sudden increase in heart rate. Among the pet owners, increased levels of stress did not result in increased somatic anxiety.
“It may be that they are serving as a buffer,” said Goodman-Winslow. “So yes, I’m still having stress, but by having my animal, that stress is not translating into this sort of anxiety in the same way.”
While pets might be good for students, some might worry whether college life is good for the animal. Last year, Mekenna Hooper decided to adopt a dog and said she wanted a small, older dog.
Hooper, who studies at at Johnson & Wales University in Denver, Colorado, said among pet adoption organizations, “none of them liked the fact that we lived in a dorm.” She eventually adopted Max, a seven-kilogram dog who is now 11 years old. Hooper and her roommate attend classes at different times and have different work schedules, so Max is rarely alone more than a few of hours at a time. He also gets all the attention he could ever want in student housing.
“Everyone knows his name,” Hooper noted. “They know his name better than they know ours.”
Goodman-Wilson believes that there can actually be good reasons for bringing your pet to school. The activities of college students can often change from one day to the next, and there are lots of people around them to look in on the pet.
“More so than your typical animal, there are ways for the wellness of the animal to be checked up on,” she said. “And I think students generally are around their animals more than your average working adults.”
If you are looking for an animal-friendly college or university, know that each school has different rules. There are more schools that accept animals kept in small containers than ones that permit dogs or cats. And where dogs are permitted, school officials may set limits on a dog’s breed or size.
Some colleges and universities limit pets to students who have been at the school for more than a year. Even Eckerd only accepts pets that lived with students before they started taking classes.
Goodman-Wilson expects the number of pet-friendly schools to grow, partly because of the increase of animals that give emotional support to the owner. Their owners are required to carry a doctor’s note stating that the person needs the animal to help them deal with a mental health condition.
Once policies are in place for emotional support animals in student housing, this can open the door to permitting pets on school grounds, in general.
In a few weeks, Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, will open its first pet-friendly housing. The college’s new policy grew out of increasing numbers of assistance animals, and because of requests to raise service dogs.
Allison Bridgeman is an administrator with Elizabethtown College. She says that on-campus animals are now seen to have a more general value.
“We see this as part of creating a … campus community that … promotes well-being,” she said.
But it also seems clear that there will be more pet-friendly college campuses as long as students have anything to say about it.
“I answer emails all that time that say, “Hey, I’m trying to start a pet policy on campus, what are the first steps?’” Kimberly Brubaker of Eckerd College said. “I probably get at least one email a week from students at other colleges asking about our program.”