By Lucy Pearson.
For many students, settling into university life can be a stressful and nerve-wracking time. According to a study conducted by YouthSight, one-third of students reported feeling depressed or homesick at some point during the time of their studies.
Earlier this month, Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania launched plans for their first ‘pet-friendly’ dorm; allowing students to live on campus with their pets.
The initiative aims to make the students’ experiences in accommodation more enjoyable, by allowing dogs, cats, hamsters, gerbils, fish, and other small caged animals to live on the premises.
At the University of Hertfordshire, there’s a currently a no-pet policy in place, with the exception of assistance dogs. However, with studies showing that pets can bring benefits to mental health – and more universities aiming to maintain positive student wellbeing – the prospect of pet-friendly accommodation is being increasingly considered worldwide.
Jess Waterhouse, an Education Studies student at the university, thinks that introducing pet-friendly accommodation to Hertfordshire would be extremely beneficial to undergraduates:
“Dogs are known for therapy and support, so I think it’s a good idea to have them on campus for those who need it. I know many people who would’ve benefited from having their own pets on campus, including me.”
According to a survey conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 74% of pet owners reported having personal mental health improvements from pet ownership and being in the presence of animals.
The University of Hertfordshire currently holds “Dog Therapy Sessions” on the College Lane campus, which are run by the Organisation “Pets as Therapy.” The sessions aim to bring positive mental health improvements to students, especially during stressful term times.
Founded in 1983, Pets as Therapy is now recognised as the largest organisation of its kind in Europe; using Animal Assisted Therapy to make a positive difference to people’s lives every day.
Simon Fletcher, a trustee for Pets as Therapy, said: “The benefits of Assisted Animal Therapy are extensive. Our volunteers and their pets visit a wide range of institutions, including schools, universities, hospitals, hospices, nursing and care homes, and even prisons.”
“At Pets as Therapy, our visits typically involve short interactions between the animal and the individuals in the institution. Adults and students benefit from the visits by getting companionship, which can be especially important during times of isolation, ill health, stress, or loneliness.”
The sessions held at the University of Hertfordshire so far have proved to be a huge success in terms of helping students to de-stress and relax around exam times, therefore providing evidence of the possible benefits which pet-friendly accommodation could offer.
However, in a Facebook poll conducted on the ‘Overheard at Hertfordshire’ page, 30.4% of students voted against introducing pet-friendly accommodation to the university.
Those voting against the idea raised the issues of the risks which would need to be considered before introducing a pet-friendly policy to on-campus accommodation; including the welfare of the animals.
For example, the RSPCA stress the importance of making sure that all animals kept as domestic pets have regular vaccinations, in order to prevent the spread of serious infectious diseases.
For puppies between eight and ten weeks, the RSPCA recommend a full course of vaccinations taking place over two visits to the vets, including a booster vaccination at 6 or 12 months of age.
Dr Rory Cowlam, an animal welfare blogger and vet at The Neighbourhood Veterinary Centre in East Dulwich, said: “Students would have to consider the main vaccinations for all small animals, including Distemper, Hepatitis, Parvovirus, and Leptospirosis.”
“It’s important to keep up to date with boosters as it maintains your pet’s immunity. Thankfully, these diseases are seen quite rarely in this country since we started vaccinating, which is a testament to the efficacy of vaccination.”
“However, the drug companies have shown that the vaccines only maintain immunity for dogs for up to 3 years, and some only up to a year. Therefore if there were an outbreak, it’s important that the dog population is immune as this allows control and reduction in the spread and outbreak of disease.”
In specific terms of pet-friendly accommodation, vaccinations and regular veterinary checks would have to be monitored regularly by both the university and its students. All pets living on campus would need to have regular checks to ensure they’re healthy and up to date with vaccinations – because if any outbreaks were to occur, they would spread rapidly through the campus due to the small enclosed spaces.
Guidelines by the RSPCA also advise that small animals, especially dogs, should not be left alone for any longer than four hours a day. This is to allow them time to exercise, go to the toilet, and interact with other people and/or animals.
Therefore, students would need to plan their days carefully in order to ensure that their pets are cared for properly. However, cats would have to be an exception and considered separately, as they would need the freedom to roam around campus grounds.
Ash Jones, a TV Production/Film student at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “I love my dog but would never want her to wait in a flat all day for me to get in, it wouldn’t be fair.”
“There would be days where they would be left alone in a small space for a long time, as many students will have a lot of other priorities other than interacting with a pet. I know I certainly wouldn’t have time to look after a dog and do coursework in accommodation.”
These guidelines would, therefore, put pressure on the university to make sure that all animals are given frequent breaks and cared for correctly; a very difficult task to monitor. In some instances, student timetables may have to be amended – in order to ensure that students aren’t out of their accommodation for longer than four hours at a time, for classes/workshops etc.
However, a possible way to tackle this issue could be the arrangement of a “Doggy Daycare” society on campus – a place where students could drop off their pets to be looked after during the day, whilst they attend their classes as usual.
The arrangement of these daycare classes would depend on the availability of staff and/or students willing to care for and watch the animals, or potentially the hiring of new staff specifically for the sessions. Possible venues could include classrooms or venues such as The Forum, and advertisements for sessions could be done through the works of student societies and organisations such as Trident Media.
Looking at the overall concept of pet-friendly accommodation, it’s important to recognize it as one more commitment and responsibility for students, on top of studying and working towards a degree.
Despite the improvements to mental health and wellbeing which pets on campus could bring, the development would have to have careful consideration and planning to ensure safety for all.
A representative from the University of Hertfordshire was contacted about future plans and the possibility of introducing pet-friendly accommodation, however, no response was given.