Research conducted by institutions ranging from the American Psychological Association to Harvard Medical School validate the pet effect, the array of health benefits springing from the human–animal bond. In particular, pet ownership is linked to improvements in various aspects of mental health, including a reduction in depression, anxiety, stress and panic attacks. The increasing student demand for mental health services underscores the rising prevalence of mental health issues at Yale and the administration’s responsibility to adapt to changing student needs.
Our student population already recognizes the restorative power of animals, as evidenced by therapy dogs at various events like study breaks and Mind Matters’ Fresh Check Day, which have consistently high turnouts. Allowing pets in selected housing spaces will not only provide student pet owners regular access to the coping mechanisms they desire but also add a much-needed element of organization to typically unstructured and chaotic college schedules. Many students find that following a routine lends stability to their lives. Walking and feeding pets at regular intervals promotes good time management and healthy sleeping habits which are critical to mental peace.
Perhaps the most valuable service pets can provide students is companionship. College students across our social media–obsessed world report increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are highly prevalent although much underdiscussed at Yale. A 2016 study at the University of British Columbia found that, after participating in an 8-week animal-assisted therapy program, first-year university students reported reduced homesickness and greater life satisfaction. Most Yalies hail from outside Connecticut, and bringing pets can alleviate the separation anxiety and homesickness that accompanies leaving home for the first time. Students can find solace in the warm greeting of their pet upon returning to their dorms, and taking the pet outside will make isolating themselves indoors impossible. The presence of a pet — a great conversation starter — can also facilitate socializing and benefit more introverted students.
Many colleges have already begun catering to students’ mental health demands by allowing pets other than fish on campus. Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are famous for allowing cats in various dorms, and students can live with their dogs and cats in Washington & Jefferson College’s “Pet House.” Selected housing spaces at Eckerd College, University of Washington, University of Illinois and University of North Carolina have been designated as pet friendly.
Although Yale’s grassy residential college courtyards and wide Old Campus lawn seem perfect for frolicking pets, the University has a strict no-pet policy, with the exception of service and assistance animals for those with a medically documented disability.
The University can pilot a revised pet policy by designating one entryway in Silliman, Timothy Dwight, Pauli Murray or Benjamin Franklin colleges “pet friendly.” First-years or upper levels who opt to bring a pet on the housing preferences form will be placed into this entryway accordingly. Restrictions include limiting the number of pets per floor, requiring written agreement of all suitemates to house the pet, disallowing pets in bathrooms and prohibiting washing of pet products in washing machines. The University of North Carolina’s pet friendly housing space has a separate laundry machine for this purpose. Additionally, all pets must be under a certain size, quiet and house-trained, and the University will maintain the right to contact students if the pet’s behavior becomes disruptive or dangerous.
Students who are going to be away for extended hours can leave their pet in an on-campus pet day care, similar to the one that exists at Stephens College. It should not be hard to attract student volunteers to provide animal care from our pet-loving population, and all Yalies will be welcome to visit and interact with the animals for an instant mood lift.
Through initiatives like offering free mindfulness meditation classes and expanding mental health counseling services, Yale has shown an increasing commitment to addressing students’ mental health issues. But the college student mental health crisis we currently face calls for investment of time and resources into big changes. Maybe a pet-friendly campus could be one of them.
Anjali Walia is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.