Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Should Pets (Even Pit Bulls) Go to College?

June 11, 2010

Should Pets (Even Pit Bulls) Go to College?

In the fall, a newly renovated dorm at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, will offer what we might think of as mixed-species rooms. Students may bring their cat or dog to campus with the College’s blessing. As reported in The New York Times earlier this week, Stephens is just one of a burgeoning number of colleges to offer students a dwelling-with-your-pet option.

MIT, for instance, allows cats in certain dorm rooms. Because it requires students to prove that their cat has been spayed or neutered, MIT’s pet policy gets an A+ in this cat rescuer’s gradebook. (I’m less impressed with another institution’s breed-specific exclusions, in the dog realm. Folks, pit bulls are not inherently evil creatures; they don’t deserve being banned “on campus at any time.”)

These programs are innovative, given that most colleges prohibit student-pet cohabitation. At William & Mary, where I teach, next year’s housing contract includes this clause:

“To preserve the health and safety of the residents, only fish in bowls or aquariums (no larger than 20 gallons) and service animals are permissible in student rooms or student apartments. In addition, since the College of William and Mary presumes that non-human life has its own intrinsic value, it calls on its students to refrain from activities which might prove needlessly harmful or wantonly cruel to animals.”

Were I in the mood to nit-pick, I’d ask which behaviors might be “needfully harmful” or “cruel but not wantonly so” to animals. Still, it’s clear enough that this policy has students’ and animals’ best interests at heart. And, set against the decision by Stephens College, MIT, and others, it raises some questions.

Won’t some dogs bark so truly, madly and deeply as to create disruption? Couldn’t any furry animal put at risk those students—or, something no one seems to consider, members of the housekeeping staff—who have allergies? Do traits of being a good roommate now include high tolerance for the over-enthused canine or the eccentric feline?

A designated dorm takes care of most of these concerns. Further, the Stephens policy offers an initial 3-week trial period to student-pet pairs. If the arrangement works out, great; if not, “continued disruption can result in having to find another living arrangement for your pet (e.g. sending the pet home).”

Where in all of this, though, does the animal’s welfare come in? Generalizations are dangerous, but it’s safe enough to note that cats and dogs aren’t always novelty seekers, whereas many college students are mobile, frequently switching between campus and home for some weekends, holidays, and summer breaks. Could all these changes stress out pets too much?

A great deal depends on a pet’s temperament—and a student’s sense of responsibility. I’d wager that those students who wish to take care of their animals in between chemistry lab and history seminar would be highly attuned and responsive to the animal’s needs.

And from cherished experience I know that some animals do best when they stay close to their one special person. In the late 80s to the late 90s, my cat Mickey lived the peripatetic academic life with me, from grad school at the University of Oklahoma to a writing year at a Santa Fe think tank (punctuated by a visit home to New Jersey) and on to the settled professorial life here in Virginia. Where was Mickey happiest? Wherever I was (and the feeling was mutual).

At some colleges, a Pet Council made up of student and faculty representatives sets guidelines and oversees the animals’ welfare. Like the pet-designated dorm, that idea is superb and deserves to set the standard at pet-friendly colleges.

Should pets go to college? What’s your opinion?


  1. June 11, 2010 10:32 AM EDT
    It would be lovely to have a dorm designated to keep pets, and their peoples together during the school year.

    I know students living in off campus housing do sometimes have pets. I have heard that some students get pets for the school year, and then abandon when they go home for the summer. I can't think of any policy that would prevent that, though.
    - AltheaKale
  2. June 11, 2010 10:43 AM EDT
    What a great blog, Barbara! I think it's hard to write policy. I've had two students in my career at W&M whose dogs were their constant companions--Molly the black lab used to wait outside Tucker for her person to finish class, begging all comers to throw her tennis ball while she waited; and Tucker the golden attended class quietly with his guy (I suspended on my own the "no dogs in buildings" policy for Tucker--most of the students didn't even know he was there). But both students lived off campus and clearly would have stopped a train to protect their animal.

    Re the pit bull business: I have a rescue dog, a pit bull mix, who is the gentlest creature living. We tried to change our home owner's insurance for the house we own in ARIZONA and the company wouldn't take us because of the dog who lives in VA. Don't do business with that company anymore.
    - Colleen
  3. June 11, 2010 11:09 AM EDT
    AltheaKale, you raise a good point. Perhaps students could sign a pledge (at least raising awareness) that to "keep" a pet means really, to keep, and not only seasonally. Colleen, thank you for commenting! I've had students bring dogs, and twice rabbits, to office hours... And I'm really glad you wrote in about your rescue dog. Especially since learning about the Vick dogs, and the work Best Friends sanctuary has done with them, I've come fully to realize how insane this breed prejudice really is. Your dog is lucky to have you.
    - Barbara J. King
  4. June 11, 2010 12:14 PM EDT
    Just have to say we're lucky to have him.
    - Colleen
  5. June 11, 2010 2:16 PM EDT
    For many college students, living arrangements change from year to year (or even semester to semester). What happens if a student moves from a place that allows pets to one that doesn't? Or if a student graduates and his or her first apartment doesn't permit pets? Most college students aren't able to make long-term plans about their living situations, and that would make it difficult to make the long-term commitment that pets require.

    I'd recommend that students who want to have pets at college be REQUIRED to have a back-up plan for the pet if their circumstances change. Maybe schools could require parents to sign a form saying they would take the pet (or find another loving home for it) if having the pet on-campus didn't work out.

    I still have the cat I adopted when I was in college. However, I waited to get him until just before graduation--when I had a much better idea of where I'd be living and what I'd be doing for the next several years. He's 13 years old now, and he's been with me for three moves and a marriage. College and pets can absolutely go together--but only when everyone has the animal's best long-term interests at heart.
    - Stephanie Selmer
  6. June 11, 2010 3:02 PM EDT
    I have been confused about pit bulls for a long time- I'll read how gentle they can be, then somewhere else read a horror story where with the BEST home and training attempts one still turns on a person or worse, a baby. I don't know--
    And dogs and cats together... same story... after having a beloved cat killed by dogs recently. No real insight here, just acknowledging the complexities.
    - Joanne Tanner
  7. June 11, 2010 3:10 PM EDT
    one more comment- a personal pit bull story. Years ago, my neighbor had a sweet, quite old female pit bull who used to like to take naps in our common driveway. I never thought much about it. Around this time I started working with gorillas at the Gorilla Foundation. Some days I would come home with that pervasive gorilla odor all over me. One day I got out of the car, and the sweet old dog growled increasingly threateningly and began to approach me baring her teeth. I hurried into the house. Would any breed react to gorilla muski-ness this way?
    Interestingly, the gorillas at the Gorilla Fdn have always had their own "pet" dogs, but not pit bulls. One of them was pretty aggressive to new humans, but knew the gorillas well. Perhaps the scent just made me a stranger to the familiar old dog in the driveway.
    - Joanne Tanner
  8. June 11, 2010 3:21 PM EDT
    Sorry, one more addition. The Gorilla Foundation dog I was always a bit scared of (it didn't know me, because I was not visiting regularly) was indeed a "pit bull"- I just did some internet research and Staffordshire terriers are one of three breeds so labeled. The GF dogs are intended as watchdogs as well as companions and playmates for the gorillas, so this is understandable. When new visitors are expected, the dogs are put indoors. Sorry, I'm certainly raising questions, not addressing them!
    - Joanne Tanner
  9. June 11, 2010 4:13 PM EDT
    Stephanie, you're right that so much depends on individual students' maturity and foresight. Only a few months ago, a graduate student (in another field than mine) asked if she might adopt one of our cats. My first question was, knowing something of her course of study, will you be doing overseas research any time soon? The answer was, oh yes, maybe I had better wait for a cat.... And this gave me pause. We have a thorough pre-screening procedure for our cat adoptions and I'm thinking colleges do/could/should go a similar route, including your idea of the back-up plan.
    Joanne, after the experiences you have had, I understand your questions. Like you, I have no answers. What might help to know is whether pit bulls and like breeds are KNOWN to be on average more aggressive, once training/background environment is held constant. Except of course, even this finding wouldn't help predict anything at all in individual cases (individual dogs).
    - Barbara J. King
  10. June 11, 2010 4:36 PM EDT
    Pets at college should be prohibited, but tolerated until there is a compelling reason to actually enforce the prohibition. Pets were prohibited at my very, very remote Appalachian college, yet everyone became part owner of a dog or sometimes a cat. (I did a photojournalism project on the illegal dogs of campus.) I had a share in a dog named Falstaff, who looked so much like a deer that we kept him inside in the weeks of deer season. He was part of a clique of dogs that exercised a complicated form of canine diplomacy with the other dog cliques. It was a period in which a lot of people went barefoot and I remember many a American Political Novel class with my girlfriend (the majority owner) and I warming our feet under Falstaff. Dogs regularly would wander in and out of the classes. Feeding was done by bringing the dog into the cafeteria and giving him/her table scraps. Twice a mealtime, the food service would eject all the dogs. Once, the chairman of my department was bitten (nipped, rather) by a dog and he freaked out. He began carrying pepper spray and a cane. He shortly traded the cane for a cattle prod. And the administration began cracking down on pet ownership, or at least the most visible manifestations thereof.
    - Joseph M. McClain
  11. June 11, 2010 5:34 PM EDT
    I have known a lovely, pit bull and a black lab who was completely untrustworthy and vicious. Therefore, I don't believe the breed has as much to do with whether or not a dog is dangerous as much as how it is handled and treated. The same is true for cats.

    That being said, I'm on the fence about students having pets in college dorm rooms. On the surface, it sounds great. However, college students aren't in a position to predict how stable their living conditions are going to be and while they may treat their pets lovingly and responsibly, they cannot guarantee roomates and visitors will do the same. What if the animals become the object of pranks by others on the hall?

    Additionally, allergies are a very real concern and can make some people quite miserable. Are students going to be required to have the rooms professionally cleaned when they move out? Or are those rooms going to be dedicated for pet owners?

    Anyway, lots to think about...
    - Sally D.
  12. June 11, 2010 8:14 PM EDT
    Joe, as a responsible servant of the Commonwealth do I want to be see agreeing to a "prohibit but tolerate" policy? I don't know, but I do know that the image of a dept. chair with a cattle prod is weirdly memorable. Sally, I think the dedicated-dorm idea might help a whole lot with worries about pranks, and allergies. However, at Halloween, I take extra precautions on my campus- not because of pets but because my lab houses casts of ancestral skulls, and the occasional student will succumb to mischief. With an animal, say a black cat to keep with the Halloween theme, mischief wouldn't be at all tolerable.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.