Pet Ownership in College Is Not for Everyone

A few weeks ago, I was on my way to Walgreens to pick up toothpaste when I bumped into a girl—let’s call her Maureen—with whom I used to attend Hebrew school years ago. We stopped only to exchange formalities, but soon found ourselves seated together in Marciano Commons, chatting together and laughing like old friends over vegan Fajitas. Maureen is loud and likable and had lots of hilarious anecdotes to share about her life with her roommates off-campus in their Allston apartment. What struck me most about my lunch with Maureen, though, was the casual—if slightly exasperated— mention of her roommate’s new puppy. She brought it up it only in passing—the puppy wasn’t event the subject of the story she had been telling—but I was so taken aback that I demanded she elaborate.

To make a long story short, Maureen’s roommate had indeed just introduced a several-month old dachshund-mix into the apartment, and everyone—dog included—was still in the “adjustment phase.” Though she seemed optimistic and good-natured, Maureen was having trouble hiding the resentment creeping into her voice when she shared with me the many trials and tribulations of the new acquisition. “He still pretty much only pees on the floor,” she said with a strained giggle. “Because he’s my roommate’s, though, I don’t really have to deal with it.” She also told me that taking the dog out had become sort of an issue, because the roommate who “owned” the dog had expected that the others would be more willing help out. Unsurprisingly, most of the responsibility had fallen onto this roommate, and that complicated things when she and the dog both, literally and figuratively, wanted to go out.

Perhaps things with Maureen and her roommate’s dog have since straightened out, but I don’t think the issues they face with collegiate pet ownership are unique. Maureen’s situation reminded me specifically of my freshman year at Indiana University, when—with so many students living in rental houses with relatively large amounts of yard space—it was very common to purchase a dog or cat, and equally common to try to get rid of it several months later after realizing how much work pet ownership actually, ahm, entailed. In Bloomington, a city densely populated with college students, the Craigslist pets and free subcategories were saturated with ads frantically trying to “rehome” young animals, obviously the products of poorly planned acquisitions months prior. In Boston, if there were not so many established households diluting the student population of potential pet owners in the city, I’m willing to bet that the Craigslist postings would look very similar.

It is important to remember, though, that overwhelmed college-age owners who do attempt to re-home their animals after realizing they cannot provide adequate care are ultimately doing the right thing. More detrimental to an animal than switching households a few times is remaining in one that is neglectful or otherwise unsatisfactory. I vividly remember once attending a house concert thrown by some acquaintances at Indiana, and watching their miniature Pinscher spend the evening cowering and whimpering in the corner. The music was so loud (and frankly, terrible) that I felt like doing the same, but with a dog’s hearing capacity at 65-45,000 Hz (a human’s is approximately 64-23,000 Hz), I can only imagine the agony this involuntary attendee had to endure.

Get this blanket off my head!
UVM student Emma Rosenzweig and her cat Dawn Draper enjoying a picnic together in the sunshine. | Photo by Sarah Halm.

Another acquaintance of mine at the University of Vermont purchased a turtle that they cleverly decided to keep in an uncovered cardboard box on their front porch. Needless to say, it disappeared—most likely clutched in the claws of some raptor bird—within the week. And then, of course, there have been the countless other instances of students blowing marijuana smoke into their cats’ faces, flushing live fish before leaving on break, locking dogs in closets during parties, and committing other you-name-it atrocities.

But all right—those are definitely amongst the worst-case scenarios. In fact, scroll through my Facebook feed on any given day of the week and approximately 25% of the photos will be of friends frolicking happily around their off-campus apartments or houses with an equally blithe-looking cat in tow (does it surprise you that most of my friends are cat people?). A few of these contented owners were kind enough to answer some quick questions for me about their successful experience owning pets, and many posed strong arguments in favor of student-ownership, provided people are willing to put in the immense (yes, they did emphasize the quantity) amount of work required. I asked specifically what the motivation was for undertaking the responsibility, and an overwhelming number of respondents reported that animals helped them relax, one friend even rationalizing the money spent on her kitten as a “therapy” expenditure.

I noticed that most of the respondents who reported that they were happy with their animal situation also reported sharing ownership responsibilities with their roommates, without a single person managing the bulk of the work as Maureen’s roommate did. Though I expect that this would make it difficult to decide who ultimately keeps the animal after graduation (assuming it lives so long), a co-operative system seems to be working for many multi-person apartments whose occupants have a mutual interest in animal ownership. Also, unsurprisingly, the most successful owners appear to be those who are financially stable enough to provide adequate food and medical support for their pets. Though students may not mind eating only ramen for a week so that they have enough money for alcohol come Friday, a cat or dog would.

What I can conclude from this is that successful pet ownership a college student is, in fact, possible—but there are many student-life environmental and logistical hurdles that make a comfortable environment for a pet difficult to maintain. Basically, if you’re planning on getting a pet—particularly a cat or dog, which require the most work—it seems as though it would be wise to make sure all the roommates are on board with its care schedule and that adequate money and time can be dedicated to it every day. Remember also that animals are not people, and are often far less resilient when responding to new people, environments, substances, diets, and noises than we are.

And finally, we human beings have the capacity to choose whether or not we care for our bodies and live healthfully. Our animals do not get to choose, but only metabolize the choices we make for them. For owners, the self-elected choice makers, it should be regarded as a moral duty to provide the wellness for our animals that they otherwise cannot otherwise provide for themselves. And, if this is impossible as a student, don’t force it—wait.

About Naomi Spungen

Naomi is a sophomore in BU's American Studies program. She enjoys doing safe, relaxing activities such as going to the grocery store, and speaking about herself in the third person.

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