January 27, 2009

Furry Friends Chase Away Blues For College Students

According to a report by MSNBC, a new survey found the love of a four-legged friend eases the pressure of tests and homework for college students.

Ohio State University researchers found that students who lived with a pet were less likely to report feeling lonely or depressed.

They also relied on the animal to help them through stressful times, says lead author Sara Staats, professor emeritus of psychology at OSU's Newark campus.

When school gets overwhelming for college student Joanna Olsen, she spends an hour playing 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," said Olsen, a senior equine business major at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., of her rat terrier.

Previous research has shown that pets can reduce anxiety and provide comfort for the elderly or the terminally ill.

Yet, the new study showed the same holds true for college students who deal with worries over leaving home and the uncertainties of entering the real world.

"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, as well as nearby community members who had dogs or cats.

Colleges that permit pets usually limit them 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.

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.

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

"(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 family members can't accompany students 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."


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