As if the beginning of the school year isn't hectic enough, there's another issue to think about when packing up and heading off to college: pets. Bringing your family dog or cat to school may sound like an easy way to deal with the stress of homesickness, bad cafeteria food, and course overload, but there's much to consider before you take your beloved animal on campus.
Students planning to bring their pet to school, or even adopt one while on campus, need to honestly assess their specific situation. They need to educate themselves about pet-care requirements and the expense of keeping a pet, including unexpected medical bills.
Also, nearly every university has provisions against students keeping pets on campus. Those who break the no-pets rule can face sanctions from the university, which may lead to surrendering the pet. Even those students who live off-campus can have problems securing animal-friendly rental housing. They may also find that they have little time, between classes and studying, to properly care for the animal.
"A lot of students think they can get a cute puppy and that's it -- it's not a big deal -- but there are things that need to be considered," says Jill Shook, DVM, of College Park Animal Hospital, located a few miles from the University of Maryland. "The main thing we see (at the animal hospital) is usually students who haven't considered the financial aspect of having a pet, and students who are completely unaware of the care pets require."
Shook actually got one of her cats, Mischief, because a student couldn't afford to care for him and brought him to the hospital to be euthanized. Shook said students often turn to parents when trying to pay veterinary bills, but that parents may not always be able to help, which often leads to the animal being abandoned.
Even if students think they would be the perfect guardian for a cat or dog, they need to adequately answer the following questions: Why do they want a pet? Do they have time for a pet? Can they afford a pet? Are they prepared to deal with the special problems a pet can cause? Can they have a pet where they live? Is it a good time to adopt a pet? Are their living arrangements suitable for the animal they have in mind? Do they know who will care for the pet while away on vacation or break? Will they be a responsible pet owner? And finally, are they prepared to keep and care for the pet for his or her entire lifetime?
"Students need to keep in mind that pets require lots of time, money, and a commitment to providing a lifelong home for the animal. They really need to think over their situation and determine whether or not it's the best time in their life to get a pet," says Stephanie Shain, The HSUS's director of Companion Animal Outreach. "Adopting a pet is a big decision and shouldn't be done on a whim and without planning. A pet someone gets in college is going to be with him or her for 15 years or more in many cases, and that needs to be considered."
If you visit any local animal shelter, you'll find many puppies and kittens, victims of irresponsible people who allowed their pets to breed. But you'll find at least as many dogs and cats who are a year or older -- animals who were obtained by people who didn't think through the responsibilities of pet ownership.
One of the main responsibilities of having a pet is making sure it has a lifelong home. For students, this means not getting rid of the pet when the animal is no longer convenient, or when the student moves back home. End-of-semester dumping of animals is a sad reality.
"We don't deal with much of that (at College Park Animal Hospital), but I have worked at other clinics where people would bring in animals that students had left at dorms or at the house they were living at," says Shook.
So what's the best option for pets and students? If a student is thinking about getting a pet while at school, the consequences must be considered, and students must educate themselves regarding the proper care and expense of a pet. If a student is living on campus where no pets are allowed, the student shouldn't get a pet. If a student is thinking about bringing the family pet to school, he or she should think again and leave the pet at home, if parents can take care of the animal.
"I think that's the best option. That's what I did, and then my mom wouldn't give my cat back," Shook jokes.
Brian Sodergren is a former Issues Specialist in the Companion Animals section of The HSUS.