Rooming With Rabbits (and Other Nonhumans)

Institutions with pet-friendly policies are seeing an uptick in students bringing dogs, cats, hamsters, reptiles and more to campus. Students say the animals help them cope with anxiety and stress.

November 12, 2021
 
Mike Cohea
Since the pandemic struck in 2020, Johnson & Wales has seen an increase in animals on campus.

When Carolynne Estrada was applying to colleges her senior year of high school, her father died unexpectedly. She knew she had to attend a postsecondary institution that would allow her to bring the cat her dad had given her.

“When I saw that Johnson & Wales accepted me and that they would allow me to bring my pet that my dad had given me that same year, it was genuinely the reason why I came to the school,” said Estrada, now a senior at the university.

Estrada’s cat, Ralph, is an emotional support animal and has lived with her on campus since freshman year. As a designated emotional support animal, Ralph is welcome in any dorm on campus, though Estrada happens to live in a pet-friendly dorm, which also houses students with pet dogs, cats, chinchillas, hedgehogs, bunnies, hamsters and more. Some of these are registered as emotional support animals; others are just house pets students decided to bring along.

Nicole Hebert, director of accessibility services at Johnson & Wales, works with students who have service and emotional support animals on campus. Since the pandemic struck in 2020, she said, there’s been an increase in emotional support animals on campus, which she attributes mainly to the stresses of returning after more than a year of online learning.

“Students’ transition to living away from home, I think, is a little more significant this year than for most first-year college students,” Hebert said. “To have that piece of home come with them, I think, is incredibly helpful to them. And so what is a somewhat anxious time for young people, that anxiety is a bit reduced by having that animal with them.”

Since there isn’t an official, nationwide registration database for emotional support animals, most requests for one must be accompanied by a letter from a certified mental health professional. At Johnson & Wales, emotional support animals are only permitted in the student’s assigned dorm, which can be any dorm on campus. If students want to have their support animals in public or common areas, they must get permission from accessibility services or residential life; working service animals can go anywhere on campus.

But any Johnson & Wales student can bring a pet to campus. In addition to Estrada’s dorm, there are three other pet-friendly dorms on the Providence, R.I., campus. According to the campus guidelines, students are allowed to have “non-aggressive” and “approved” breeds of dogs that are over a year old and weigh less than 40 pounds, cats older than a year, “small caged mammals” such as hamsters and guinea pigs, and lizards and turtles that can live comfortably in a five-gallon tank. Not allowed: poisonous or endangered species, snakes, and animals “that have to be fed a live animal for survival,” according to the guide.

Each student is allowed to bring only one pet and must pay a $250 cleaning fee for the academic year; emotional support animals are free. Pets in the designated dorms are allowed in their owner’s room but not permitted to roam in the halls, common areas or other student rooms. They are also banned from all other campus buildings and from university transportation.

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Nev Kraguljevic, director of residential life at Johnson & Wales, said that while there’s always been student interest in bringing pets to campus, it’s grown in recent years. At least three dozen institutions have established pet-friendly dorms, according to USA Today. Some have observed a post-pandemic uptick in pets on campus, including the State University of New York at Canton, Clarion University in Pennsylvania and Eckerd College in Florida, which all have pet-friendly dorm policies.

At Clarion, sophomores, juniors and seniors are permitted to live in one of three pet-friendly apartment buildings, which are part of a larger residential complex. Students are allowed to bring dogs under 40 pounds, cats, amphibians and small reptiles; each person can bring one large pet or two small ones and must pay a $200 fee for the academic year.

Todd Spaulding, associate director of residence life and housing operations at Clarion, said the pet-friendly accommodations have always been popular, but students have shown increased interest this year; very few apartments remain vacant.

“It’s pretty popular, and we don’t really have much issue filling that area,” Spaulding said. “We’ve never really had problems with any damages, like dogs or cats destroying apartments or students not taking care of their pets. It’s always been a good experience for us so far.”

At Eckerd College, first-year and transfer students may bring small pets—including fish, hamsters and gerbils—at any time, but they must attend for at least one semester before registering a larger pet, including a dog under 40 pounds, a cat or a rabbit. Large pets cost $175 per year, while the small ones cost nothing.

Anne Wetmore, associate dean for student life at Eckerd, said the 2,017 students enrolled have registered 271 large and small animals as pets, but she expects the number to grow next semester. Additionally, she noted a slight increase in students with emotional support animals, which have to be registered through the office of accessibility and require a letter from a certified mental health professional.

SUNY Canton has established a “pet wing” in one of its residence halls, though dogs, birds, spiders and snakes are prohibited. Students with cats are responsible for paying for cleaning supplies to eliminate smells or stains. John Kennedy, director of residence life, said students are allowed one cat per person, with a maximum of two cats in one double dorm room. Limits on the number of smaller pets, including fish and hamsters, are determined on a case-by-case basis.

Students with emotional support animals or working service animals—which are usually dogs—can live in any dorm on campus but are encouraged not to live in the pet wing, Kennedy said. He noted that while interest in the pet wing has remained consistent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it proved especially helpful to students on campus last year.

“The pet wing was the place to be in during COVID,” Kennedy said. “At the height of the pandemic last year, I think a lot of students who were lonely on campus were taking some or all of their classes remotely, and there wasn’t much going on socially on campus. So I think it was really helpful for students to have a nonhuman roommate with them.”

The growing demand among students for pet-friendly dorms has spawned another trend: a rise in students gaming the system to register a pet as an emotional support animal. Some students pay money to download a counterfeit letter, allegedly from a licensed health professional, that claims they qualify for an emotional support animal, said Christine Kivlen, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Wayne State University.

“Students abusing the system is really important, considering the definition of what an emotional support animal is and how important it is to have a qualified mental health professional determine if that’s appropriate,” Kivlen said. “Because I have seen that in some cases where students actually need an animal for emotional support and they’re actually finding it much more challenging because of the increased number of students who are abusing that.”

Kivlen, an expert on therapy dog programs, is a strong proponent of colleges employing therapy dogs to help all students readjust to in-person learning.

“It could be a really great benefit as students transition and have a really big change in routine in a short period of time,” Kivlen said. “I am hopeful that the increased literature in this area can help more individuals on campus implement programs and implement them the correct way.”

Students readily acknowledge the advantages of having a pet or emotional support animal with them on campus. Daisy Bagno, a student at Johnson & Wales, lives in one of the campus’s pet-friendly dorms with her emotional support cat, Gomel.

“School definitely has me a little stressed, especially during studying for finals and all that,” Bagno said. “But there’s something about cats—they sense when you’re upset.”

Austin Jones, a freshman at SUNY Canton, lives in the pet wing with his cat, Pumpkin, who he said brings him comfort.

“It’s added somebody else to just be with me,” Jones said. “Bringing him makes it feel more like home, and it just feels good to have him around.”

Viktoria Pierre and Taylor Cady, first-year students at SUNY Canton, also live in the pet wing. Pierre, who has two betta fish and a hamster named Muffin, said it’s surprising how much the critters have boosted her mental health. She regularly talks to her fish about her day, she said.

“Sometimes when you’re here, you’re away from home and you feel kind of disconnected from people,” Pierre said. “But when you have a little pet with you it just makes you feel like, ‘I’m not alone.’”

Cady said her cat, Hemlock, helped her develop a routine because she had to wake up at 8:00 every morning to feed him, which in turn helped lower her stress.

“Just him being around makes me very happy,” Cady said. “His mannerisms and everything that he does makes me happy and helps me feel better whenever I’m down.”

For Estrada, the Johnson & Wales senior, Ralph the cat helped her mourn her dad while also giving her a routine, which forced her to get up each day.

“I think he helped me during that freshman year when I was grieving my dad,” Estrada said. “I don’t think I could be here by myself. He makes me have to be responsible for something.”

(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nicole Hebert's name.)

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