Students may want pets for a variety of reasons. They’re lonely or stressed or miss their family pets. Or maybe they’ve never had pets of their own before but have always wanted them. But before diving into pet ownership, students should evaluate whether now is the right time to get a furry friend. Find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of owning a pet in college. Plus, discover ways to get your animal fix without the commitment of owning your own.
People who have spent time with domestic animals have likely experienced some of the immediate benefits pets can bring. However, there can be drawbacks to keeping pets, too, especially for college students. It’s important that students take into account all aspects of having a pet before bringing one home.
Whether they’re furry, scaly, shelled or feathered, pets can be excellent companions. They’re there for students after a long day of classes, and they usually don’t mind listening to rants about professors and coursework. Students struggling to make friends may especially benefit from pet ownership.
Riley Sailor, assistant director of admissions at Lees-McRae College, a pet-friendly school, says pets can also be great conversation topics. “[Pets] can really help break the ice in certain situations, whether it’s connecting with your professors or making new friends, because who doesn’t love cute animals?”
Students who have pets that need regular exercise, like dogs, may find that they also benefit from the extra time outside. “Depending on breed, they may love joining you for a run,” says Julia Rohan, owner of Chicago-based Rover-Time Dog Walking & Pet Sitting. “At the very least, you're responsible for getting them out and about for three to five good walks per day.” That’s a lot of opportunity for students to get fit with their furry companions.
Animals can also have positive effects on students’ mental health. According to a 2017 report by the American College Health Association, college students report high rates of stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that pets can increase people’s levels of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces anxiety and lowers blood pressure, by 300 percent. A 2016 survey conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) found that 62 percent of millennials have experienced mental health improvements from having pets.
Pets are a huge responsibility, and they aren’t cheap, either. Students may underestimate the cost of having a pet. “A lot of college students live on tight budgets and may find it hard to afford routine expenses for an animal,” says Rohan. Day-to-day costs, such as food, litter, sawdust for small animals and grooming supplies can add up quickly, and if a medical emergency should occur, that could be a huge financial blow to students who might not be able to afford care.
According to the ASCPA, just the first-year total costs for caring for a cat can add up to $1,174, while a medium-sized dog may cost up to $1,779. With an average lifespan of around 16 years, that means caring for a cat could add up to over $13,000 over its lifetime – more without pet insurance.
While it can be gratifying and relaxing to come home to a pet after a long day of classes, there’s nothing quite like the frustration of having your “fur baby” sitting on your laptop while you’re trying to crank out essays and projects during finals week. “No matter the pressure to get your schoolwork and studying done, you still need to take time, sometimes lots of time, for your pet,” says Rohan.
Animals need play time, exercise, food and attention, whether students are busy or not, and the stress of pet parenthood can sometimes replace the stresses they were meant to relieve in the first place.
Although some schools, like Lees-McRae College, have pet-friendly residence halls and encourage pet ownership on campus, most dorms don’t allow or limit pet ownership. Students living off campus may also find it difficult to find rentals that allow pets. And those that do may come with an extra pet deposit.
Rohan believes that despite all the wonderful aspects of owning pets, they can be particularly limiting to college students. “So much is gained by getting out of the house, going away to school and really focusing on you,” she says. “It's a wonderful time of life to just be selfish! Adding a pet to the home requires you to master time management, save money for a rainy day and plan ahead. It's harder to be spontaneous.”
The nature of college life can make it difficult for students to care for pets, too. Although pets may care about their human companions, they don’t care that their humans are students operating on irregular, often stressful, schedules. “The student has to ensure the animal is receiving proper exercise and not staying locked up all day, meaning no going off for long periods of time without checking on the animal,” says Sailor.
Sailor reminds students that just because there are downsides to having a pet in college doesn’t mean they need to brush off the idea of pet ownership altogether. “No matter the drawbacks, always be sure to base your college decision on areas that are important to you and things that will ensure you will succeed in college.”
Before committing to getting a pet, students should ask themselves the following questions:
Students should not get pets if their schools or rentals don’t allow it. Many students think they can get away with hiding their pets, but when they get caught, they either have to give up their animals or find new places to live. Students with certified emotional support animals generally do not face the same housing restrictions as those with pets.
A student’s dream pet may be a husky puppy but that’s probably not the best choice if they live in a studio apartment. Students should be realistic about the kinds of pets they want and which are actually feasible for their lifestyles. Shelters have much more than just dogs and cats looking for homes, so students don’t need to limit their considerations. Guinea pigs, hamsters, tortoises, parakeets and fish can be excellent companions, too.
As noted above, pets can be surprisingly expensive. Students need to be honest with themselves about their finances and spending habits. Students can prepare for pet ownership by researching insurance policies and having emergency funds specifically for their pets if any medical problems should occur.
“Sometimes students can forget, or not realize, how much time actually goes into classes, extracurricular activities and studying, all while also trying to maintain social lives in college,” says Sailor. “Students really need to think about whether this is something they are realistically prepared to take on and balance among all of those factors.”
Students may be surprised by the amount of room even small animals can take up. Not only do animals themselves need room in which to move around, but students will also need to find places to store all their animals’ stuff. Kennels, terrariums, beds, bags of food and other necessary supplies can quickly fill a small dorm or studio.
One of the great things about going to college is the freedom it can afford students. Whether they’re going on weekend trips or year-long study abroad voyages, students who want to travel should consider how pets would figure into their plans.
“College is a freeing time!” Rohan says. “You're away from home and able to travel abroad or on road trips with friends. But boarding an animal for overnight care is expensive! In Chicago, people pay upwards of $75 per night for an animal’s safety and security while they're away.”
All too often, students get pets as soon as they get to school, without telling their families. When they go home for summer and aren’t allowed to bring the animals with them, students are forced to turn their pets over to shelters. Shelters tend to see a lot of animals come back at the end of spring term because students don’t make plans for their pets ahead of time.
A student may not always live alone or share a place with someone who is tolerant of a pet. Having a pet can significantly limit housing and roommate options. While students may feel secure when living on pet-friendly campuses, once they graduate, they will have to find housing situations that accommodate both them and their pets.
Most pets will live beyond the four-ish years students will spend in college. Caring for a pet is a long-term commitment that students need to plan for. Students should consider things like relocating for work or additional schooling upon graduation, moving back home or moving into shared housing situations, as well as the financial feasibility of having a pet for many years. People tend to think of their pets as family, and relinquishing them to shelters because of poor planning can be a heartbreaking experience for both students and their pets.
Pet parenthood isn’t right for every student, but that doesn’t mean students have to miss out on the benefits of being around animals. There are tons of ways students can get quality time with animals without the full commitment of owning them.
Special family pets are irreplaceable, but student who find themselves missing their old friends can cuddle up with replica plushies. Companies such as Petsies and Cuddle Clones create custom stuffed animals from pet photos.
Animal therapy programs on campus have gained a lot of popularity over the past few years. Colleges partner with animal therapy organizations to bring pets trained in the art of calming overwhelmed students to school. Some schools have therapy dogs walking around common areas of campus at any given time. Others may offer special dog rooms that students can rent out for short periods, to give students some quiet time with furry friends. Colleges without full-time pet therapy programs may bring in teams of support animals during particularly stressful times of the school year, like midterms and finals, to give students a bit of relief.
Both Sailor and Rohan note that shelters and other animal-related organizations often need people to help out with various tasks. Students often don’t have a lot of free time, but, as Rohan said, “With a little training, you can learn how to help transform an animal waiting for its forever home by helping exercise and practicing basic training to improve their manners.” It’s a win-win.
Dog-walking and pet-sitting gigs can provide students with a flexible way to hang out with pets and make a little cash on the side. For instance, Rohan’s company, Rover-Time, hires people from all walks of life to help dog owners give their pets the exercise they need, and they get paychecks on top of it. Plus, students can get some practice as pet parents for the future. “We love transforming our new hires into lifelong dog advocates that come away from the work as better pet parents.”
Depending on where they live, students can venture off campus to get some homework done. Dog parks and pet-friendly cafes can be great places to do work, watch animals enjoy the outdoors and even meet nice humans, too. “Nowadays, it's common to find dog-friendly parks, beaches, patios and bars, even small businesses that welcome canine friends,” Rohan points out.
Sometimes, having a friend with a pet is even better than having a pet yourself. Students can reap all the benefits of consistent animal contact without the drawbacks of having their own pets. You just have to be careful not to let on that all the invitations to hang out with your friend are really excuses to play fetch with Spot.