When I was a college student, my peers and I longed for kitty “coeds” that could provide welcome companionship and a warm reminder of home life. Pets were not permitted on campus then, but new research supports what we suspected all along: Ownership of pets — especially cats — can benefit college students. Sara Staats, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Newark, and colleagues Heidi Wallace and Tara Anderson determined that pets are an important source of social support to college-age students. They asked both faculty members and university students to fill out a survey on this matter and were often pleasantly surprised by the results.

Why College Cats Help
The most common reason given for pet ownership by students was, “I would be lonely without my pet.” Says Dr. Staats: “You would think that hectic social schedules would provide students with more than enough companionship, but pets appear to offer a different, perhaps more nonjudgmental, form of support.” Both students and faculty also reported that their pet keeps them active and helps during the more difficult times.

Based on their responses, freshmen seemed to value the benefits of pet ownership the most. “One may speculate that university freshmen have acquired fewer coping resources than adults, being in a transition period where they are somewhat separated from family and high school friends and have not yet formed a social support network in their college lives,” the researchers theorize.

But even faculty members and adult locals who also took the survey provided similar responses. “I was surprised that some cat owners said their pet helped to keep them active,” Dr. Staats says. “We expected this would hold true for dog owners, but cats? And you wouldn’t think students would be concerned about staying active, due to their busy lives.”

Cats Often OK, Dogs Not
Although I fondly remember a Latin professor’s dog that often sat through long lectures, campuses that do allow pets in dorm rooms usually only approve of cats, fish and sometimes other small, caged animals. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, allows just cats in four specified dorms. Their pet policy explains that “we want to limit the number of people with allergies that will be affected by the presence of the pets. Also, it will be very easy to tell if a cat is being cared for properly, whereas it is more difficult to see if a hamster or iguana is.”

Karen Nilsson, MIT’s senior associate dean of residential life, suggests that having the cat policy has helped keep things under control, since housing officials there previously found dogs, frogs, snakes, turtles, rats, rabbits and even weasels stashed away in dorms. Officials at other colleges were horrified to find hedgehogs and even scorpions in student rooms.

Additional universities that have, at least in the past, officially allowed certain pets on campus include the California Institute of Technology, the State University of New York at Canton, and Shimer College, in Waukegan, Ill. Shimer was one of the first in the nation to establish a pet policy, giving the all clear to certain cats.

The Dos and Don’ts of Cats in College
Dr. Staats and other experts advise the following:

Do check with the university or college to see what, if any, rules are in place concerning pets on campus.

Don’t offer a pet as a gift to a dorm-residing student. “Not all people want and can care for pets,” Dr. Staats explains. “Pet ownership is a big responsibility that requires careful consideration and planning.”

Do obtain the consent of all roommates, and even floor mates, before bringing a cat into a feline-friendly college. Many universities require written consent from such individuals.

Don’t bring a pet to college — even if it’s legal — if you won’t have sufficient time to interact with the cat. Even if you can provide the basics, such as food and health care, felines get lonely, too.

Do explore other ways of obtaining the benefits of time spent with cats, if pets are not allowed in your dorm room, apartment or other living situation. “Sometimes volunteering at a no-kill animal shelter can be just as rewarding,” Dr. Staats says.