More colleges are adopting pet-friendly policies

Lisa A. Beach
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More colleges are adopting pet-friendly policies

Colleges are increasingly allowing students to bring their cats and dogs to live with them on campus.
Eckerd college student Colin Hilliard with dog Luna.

“I grew up as an only child in a very pet-friendly household. We’ve never not had a dog in the house,” says 20-year-old Colin Hilliard, a junior at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. “College was the first time that I’d been away from home ... so it was extremely challenging for me to adjust.”

After his freshman year, while he was home in Gettysburg, Pa., Hilliard adopted a 2-month-old puppy named Luna. He took advantage of Eckerd’s pet-friendly policy by bringing Luna to live with him on campus his sophomore year. “I’d always used my dog to ease my anxiety symptoms, so being without one was rough,” he says. “Having my dog at college gives me the emotional stability I need to keep up with my busy schedule.”

Health benefits

Recent studies show owning a pet can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decrease feelings of loneliness and increase fitness levels.

And a 2017 study, Pets on Campus: Best Friend or Bad Decision?, showed findings that mirror Hilliard’s experience. The study tracked 66 students — some with pets and others without — over the course of one semester. “There wasn’t really a difference in the levels of stress and anxiety between pet-owning students and nonpet-owning students,” explains the study’s co-author, Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd. “But we found that, for students living with pets, even if reporting lots of stress, it wasn’t translating into symptoms of anxiety.” Goodman-Wilson says that pets help students better manage the physical symptoms of stress.

Paws-itive perks

Eckerd College was one of the first schools in the country to offer housing to students with pets. A private liberal arts college founded in 1958, Eckerd informally allowed fish and small pets for years. But in 1973, it officially sanctioned a pet policy to welcome larger animals such as cats and dogs, according to James Annarelli, Eckerd’s vice president for student life and dean of students.

Since then, the pet-friendly culture has blossomed to include a spring > graduation and a fall pet blessing. Annarelli estimates that 200 pets have “graduated” in a ceremony that coincides with their owners graduating from Eckerd. “It’s heartwarming,” notes Annarelli. “Some of the seniors buy diplomas for their (pet) graduates and make a cap and gown for them.”

With a total student enrollment of 1,842 (as of spring 2018), Eckerd is home to 229 registered pets — more than half of them dogs and cats, says Robbyn Hopewell, a college spokesperson. Other campus critters include hamsters, lizards, hedgehogs, rabbits and ferrets.

Whether fur, feathers or scales, pets give students a connection to home.

“Before college, I wasn’t all that social,” admits 20-year-old Haley Sumner, a junior at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C. “With that comes a fear of being alone in a place filled with people you’ve never met before.” To fix that, Sumner brought along her 4-year-old cat, Princess. “It was important to me to have that piece of home come with me. My cat is more than just a pet. She’s a friend that knows me without judgment. I couldn’t imagine not coming home to her every day.”

Speaking of friends, pets also provide a natural way to make new ones.

“Whenever I take Toby on a walk or to classes, people always stop to say ‘hi,’” notes 19-year-old Ellie Eyerly, a freshman at Lees-McRae who lives on campus with her dog. “Because of this, I’ve been able to meet more people on campus.”

Anne Wetmore, Eckerd’s associate dean for student life, sees this firsthand every day. “Having pets on campus is a great community builder and adds a dimension of warmth to an already-friendly campus,” she says.

The pet-friendly perk extends beyond students at some colleges. Faculty and staff at Lees-McRae, for instance, can bring their own furry friends to campus.

“My own pet, Jack, is hanging out with me in the office right now,” says Josh Gaisser, assistant dean of students for residence life. “I’ve found that students hang out in my office much more frequently when Jack is present. As a result, having pets on campus helps build greater connections not only between students, but between students and staff members as well.”

A growing trend

Eckerd College might have laid the foundation for what’s now a small-but-growing trend. While a study of more than 1,000 schools and their pet policies found that just 4 percent allow pets, the number has been slowly inching upward. Anecdotal evidence shows just a handful of pet-friendly colleges existed a few decades ago. Now, there are more than three dozen.

Wetmore, who also sees a rise in emotional support animals on campus, says “other colleges are asking us how we do it.”

They need only look to the colleges that already allow pets. Policies are fairly similar, designed with both safety and hygiene in mind to protect people, animals and property. Many colleges designate a specific floor or residence hall for students with pets, require them to register their pets with the housing office and perhaps pay a fee.

With so many positive outcomes — boosting mental and physical health, building community, helping students adjust — colleges considering pet-friendly policies might be barking up the right tree.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: More colleges are adopting pet-friendly policies