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Animal house? More colleges are saying yes to dogs and cats in dorms

By: Karin Brulliard, The Washington Post
April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 1:39 pm
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Of 229 registered pets living on campus at Eckerd, 132 are cats or dogs. MUST CREDIT: Eckerd College.

Most dorm residents at Southeast Missouri State University will show up this fall with bedding, a laptop, a backpack and other typical accessories. A few dozen others will tote something furry and breathing: their pets.

The school in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is creating pet-friendly floors in one residence hall, where students will be allowed to bunk with roommates of the feline, petite canine or "small caged animal" variety. The decision came in response to rising requests from prospective students and their parents, say university officials, who hope it will help smooth some newcomers' transition from home to higher education.

With this move, Southeast joins a small but growing group of colleges that house students and their critters. They include the University of Northern Colorado; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has allowed cats in some dorms since 2000; and Stephens College, a women's school in Columbia, Mo., with a website that boasts, "Here, we treat pets like royalty."

College officials say students today retain closer ties to home than those of previous generations, in part because of social media. That can make the move tougher, and permitting pets is one way "to make sure we're integrating students best into the learning environment," said Debbie Below, Southeast's vice president for enrollment management and student success.

The school will make space for about 70 pets in one of its 21 residence halls, Below said. They will be distinct from the 25 or so service and emotional support animals that, as required by federal housing and disability laws, already live in various dorms. The university's experience with those animals made officials confident that they could lay out a more general pet welcome mat, Below said.

Officials also hope the new pet-friendly floors might attract some of the students with service or emotional support animals, which Below said occasionally present challenges in regular dorms. "You could have somebody on that floor who's afraid of animals or has a serious allergy, and you're going to end up moving somebody," she said. "We're hoping that this is one solution."

Pet-friendly housing rules are designed to prevent problems caused by animals in shared spaces. At Southeast, which has about 11,500 students, critters will have to be quiet, housebroken and get a roommate's sign-off. They will not be allowed in dorm bathrooms, and to protect residents with pet allergies, owners may not use laundry facilities to wash pet bedding or toys. (The University of Northern Colorado, on the other hand, dealt with this issue by designating washing machines and dryers for that specific purpose.)

Below emphasized that Southeast's pet-friendly floors will be a pilot program, and policy adjustments are likely. At least one school that has tested such a program, Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, decided to abandon it after two years.

At the other end of the spectrum is Eckerd, a liberal arts college in St. Petersburg, Fla., that has permitted dorm pets since the 1972-73 school year. James Annarelli, vice president for student life and dean of students, said records do not reflect how the policy came about, but he suspects it was driven by student demand. "This is not a top-down place," he said.

These days, Eckerd has fewer than 1,900 students, but it has 229 registered pets on campus. Of those, 132 are dogs or cats, and the remainder represent an exotic array of species, spokeswoman Robbyn Hopewell said.

"We have some spiders," Hopewell noted as she read from a spreadsheet of campus animals. "It looks like our most popular lizard is a bearded dragon; there are five of those. Ferrets, fish, gerbils, frogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, hedgehogs, rabbits, rats, unspecified reptiles. We've got 23 snakes, one sugar glider and seven tortoises or turtles."

A pair of ducks once lived with a pair of roommates. "The ducks actually graduated two years ago," Hopewell said. (Their humans did, too.)

Twice a year, a veterinarian visits the Eckerd campus to provide checkups. Once a year, a pastor comes to the school, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian church, to bless pets in honor of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Each spring, Eckerd holds a commencement ceremony just for the animals.

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