3 in 4 college students say leaving their pets at home gives them separation anxiety

PULLMAN, Wash. — Heading off to college is usually a joyous time for many teens and young adults. For those with pets however, a new study finds leaving home for the first time is actually impacting their mental health. Researchers from Washington State University find three in four freshmen say leaving their pets behind is giving them separation anxiety.

Their poll of 150 incoming first-year students with pets discovered that 75 percent reported having some level of anxiety from not being able to bring their pets to the campus. One in four reported experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of separation anxiety from not seeing their companions each day.

“Students who are struggling with missing their pets should know that they’re not alone,” says study lead author Alexa Carr, a WSU doctoral student, in a university release. “There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them if they are experiencing a lot of distress from leaving their pets. It can be an isolating experience to lose that coping resource.”

The closer you are, the more it hurts

A recent poll found that three in five people consider their furry friend a “soulmate.” With that in mind, the WSU team says students who treat their pets more like a person and a friend suffered from more severe cases of anxiety after leaving for college. These young pet owners were also more likely to sleep in the same room with their pets at home and spent more time with them than other pet owners.

Researchers conducted the mental health study before these new students arrived on campus and again after their first two weeks of the fall 2019 semester — prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The team examined each student’s mental health as well as their level of attachment to their pets.

Carr and co-author Patricia Pendry say their results remained constant, even after accounting for existing mental health issues. The team does note that 81 percent of the respondents were young women, a significantly higher number than the average portion of women enrolled in college in 2020 (60%).

Do support animals actually make anxiety worse?

Although previous studies have found that petting dogs or cats can be very therapeutic and lowers stress levels, study authors find this can actually have the opposite effect for pet owners. The team notes that they need to do more research on pet visitation programs on college campuses, which could exacerbate separation anxiety among young adults missing their pet back home.

Carr adds that these findings should not become a rallying point for advocates of allowing students to bring their pets with them to college.

“It’s a big responsibility to take care of an animal and would a student then able to balance their school responsibilities, social lives and jobs?” Carr concludes. “There are more things to take into consideration and explore before we could advocate for more pets on campus.”

The findings appear in the journal Anthrozoos.

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