By Andrew Clayman
For the majority of America’s dorm-dwelling college students, having a pet usually means little more than the occasional goldfish and a novelty pet rock or two. Rodents and reptiles are rarely permitted on campus, and the only cat or dog roaming the halls is the school mascot. However, a few schools are setting a new precedent—embracing the student-pet relationship and opening dorm room doors to some appreciative, four-legged roommates.
“I believe that allowing students to have a pet makes living in the residence halls more like home,” says Paulina Perkins, Director of Residence Life at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. “It really eases the transition for them.”
Four years ago, Stephens College instituted a new, experimental policy under which students could keep pets with them in two designated halls on campus. While cats, dogs, birds, and smaller animals would all be allowed, careful guidelines were laid out regarding the pet’s size and health, and prospective participants in the program were required to fill out paperwork and pay a $200 pet deposit.
“We started small with only seven students that had pets,” Perkins says, “and last year we grew to over 40. Many students actually chose to come to Stephens because they’re allowed to bring their family pet.
”One such student is sophomore Amy Ramatowski, who has helped solidify Stephens’ program by creating and running K-9 College, an on-campus doggie daycare.
“It means so much to be able to bring my companion to school with me,” Ramatowski says. “Plus, in a pet dorm, everyone is able to relate to each other through the common love of their pets. They’re my kind of people.”
Similar sentiments are often heard at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a pet-friendly program has been in place for nearly 20 years. Once an Eckerd freshman has completed one semester at the school, he or she may bring along a pet from home to reside with at one of three designated houses on campus. To keep everyone (furry or otherwise) safe and accounted for, Eckerd has even developed an official Pet Council to enforce the college’s policies and help students with pet-related issues. According to the school’s Assistant Director of Residence Life, Mike Robilotto, the program’s benefits have considerably outweighed any potential drawbacks.
“The policy is working,” he says. “I’d say we’re keeping a lot of students on campus who would normally move off as upper classmen to an apartment where they could have a pet. It’s also great because many of our students come from all over the country, and it’s nice for those who are so far from home to have a cat or a dog that helps remind them of home.”
Of course, after graduation, most college students—and their pets—end up returning to the stability of the family home for a while. But Robilotto also sees many cases in which recent graduates continue to care for their pets independently, having grown even more bonded to the animal through the college experience.
“Many times, students are doing their families a favor by bringing along a pet to live on campus,” he says. “That pet then becomes a vital part of the student’s life and continues with them long after graduation.”
While a number of other colleges are starting to implement programs that permit small animals, and occasionally cats, Stephens and Eckerd have little company when it comes to welcoming canines.
The State University of New York at Canton, for example, has been widely respected as a pet-friendly school for over a decade, but has yet to include any dogs as a part of its program.
“I know some other schools allow dogs, but personally, I think that would be a pain,” says Courtney Battista, Director of Residence Life at SUNY Canton. “We talked about it on and off, but you know, dogs need to go outside to go to the bathroom. Plus, with the barking being loud and the dangers associated with dogs—not knowing how they’re going to react to certain situations— it just really didn’t seem feasible for us at this time.”
It is certainly hard to argue those points, but the policy-makers at Eckerd and Stephens have tried their best to address potential problems with campus dogs by instituting strict rules of qualification. At both schools, for example, students may only keep a dog that weighs less than 40 pounds, is current on all her vaccinations, and has lived with the student’s family for at least a year. Still, problems will always arise, and the time, money, and paperwork required in maintaining a dog-friendly program has kept most universities from giving it a shot.
No one is complaining at SUNY Canton, however, where about 50 students have taken up residence in the school’s popular cat-laden wing, known as the Grasse River Community. Having seen the benefits of a pet-friendly program firsthand, Battista doesn’t hesitate to encourage other schools to follow suit in one form or another.
“Absolutely, I think trying it out with a floor or a couple of floors is a really good idea,” she says, “just to see how it works for your school. But the students who are part of the pet wing here absolutely love it.”
“I believe that any college that attempts this needs to have the commitment and the resources to make it successful,” adds Perkins, acknowledging a fact most pet lovers have long understood—dedication breeds success.