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Stressed over a test? Pet your pooch

When deadlines loom and homework piles up, a furry friend can be a source of support, companionship and stress relief for college students, a recent study shows.
Duane Hoffmann /

When school gets too overwhelming, college student Joanna Olsen has a tried-and-true stress reliever: an hour of Frisbee with her dog, Mischka.

“She always seems to know when I’m stressed and comes over and paws at me if I seem out of it,” says Olsen, a senior equine business major at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., of her beloved rat terrier.

When deadlines loom and homework piles up, a furry friend can be a source of support, companionship and stress relief for college students, finds a recent Ohio State University study. While other research has shown that pets can reduce anxiety and provide comfort for the elderly or the terminally ill, the new study showed the same is true for college students — a demographic dealing with the simultaneous worries over leaving home and the uncertainties of entering the real world.

Chasing the blues away
Researchers found that students who lived with a pet were less likely to report feeling lonely or depressed. They often relied on the animal to help them through stressful times, says lead author Sara Staats, professor emeritus of psychology at OSU’s Newark campus.

“Many students said that their pets fulfill a significant role that is missing in their lives," Staats says. "The pets are not a substitute for human social interaction and support, but they do provide important interaction for these kids who might otherwise feel isolated from their current environment.”

The study was based on survey responses from 350 pet-owning students at the college campus, as well as nearby community members who had dogs or cats.

Nationwide, just a handful of colleges and universities, including Stephens College, allow students to keep pets on campus. While Lory Arnold, director of residential life at Stephens, has seen the comfort a pet can provide a student, she cautions that caring for a pet while in college could add more pressure to an undergraduate. Finding adequate time and money to keep an animal well-cared for can be difficult for a busy college student.

For Olsen, Mischka's expenses are covered by money she sets aside from her summer job each year. But when she’s rushing from class to the library to parties, Olsen admits feeling a little guilty over not giving her pooch enough attention.

“Sometimes it’s hard to spend enough time with her. I’d like to take her for walks … more often than I am presently able to,” Olsen says. “Sometimes I worry that she gets bored, but she has her own personal indicator to me that I need to change something: She pulls the stuffing out of her pillow when she has nothing else to do. So unless I want to have a ‘pillow fund,’ I have to make sure she doesn’t get bored.”

Still, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

“My days are usually brimming with activities and at the end of the day it’s nice to just play with my dog or take her for a walk and forget about things for a little while,” says Olsen.

Julie Chappell, a sophomore majoring in communications at DePaul University in Chicago, doesn’t have the family golden retriever, Allie, with her at school, but says there are days when Allie’s presence would be a plus.

Furry stress reliever
“Allie is such a stress relief when I’m at home. If I'm working on an essay or studying and I feel overwhelmed, she always helps me relax,” Chappell says.

But would she want Allie with her at school all the time? Not exactly.

“While I would love to have Allie or a pet living with me, that would be a horrible idea,” she says. “If I'm not busy with school, I'm busy with my social life, which includes going out and sometimes coming home at unnatural hours. I would not be able to devote enough attention to an animal, no matter how hard I wanted to.”

Schools that permit pets typically limit pets to certain floors or buildings. At Stephens, which has allowed pets since 2004, only one residence hall permits pets, and students must abide by rules addressing such issues as noise, grooming and waste disposal. Abandonment between semesters, which is often a concern of humane groups, isn’t really an issue at Stephens, Arnold says.

“A lot of students bring their pets from home," she says. So, "they take them home with them.”

While a pet can ease loneliness for some students, it could cause others to feel more isolated.  “Students will stay in their rooms because they want to spend as much time as possible with their pet because they’ve been in class all day and their pet’s been alone, says Arnold. "So they don’t socialize as much as they probably should when they have a pet in their room."

The pet policy is sometimes a factor for students who are deciding between Stephens and another college, Arnold says.

That’s not surprising, says Stephen Zawistowski, the executive vice president of programs and science advisor for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“(A) lot of these kids were … the first generation of latchkey kids,” Zawistowski says. “In many cases, the dog and the cat were the family they greeted when they came home. The stresses of school and homework and everything else were shared with that companion animal."

So while students can't bring mom or dad or siblings along with them to school, with a pet, "you can have a piece of your household that you remember and enjoy a great deal,"says Zawistowski.

For Mischka, at least, the choice of Stephens was a no-brainer.

“When I couldn’t decide between Stephens and another college,” Olsen says, “one morning I woke up and found that Mischka had gotten sick — on my acceptance letter to another college.”