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Should university students own pets?

THE THOUGHT OF owning a pet is pretty enticing to students who live on their own. Something is always around to keep you company and if you’re bored or need a way to procrastinate on your assignments, Fido is always up for a game of catch.

Though pets can be great companions, there are many aspects of pet ownership that don’t seem daunting until you’re forced to deal with an animal you may have purchased on impulse. Thoroughly informing yourself on the positive and negative aspects of pet owning is necessary to make decisions that will satisfy both you and your potential pet.

Why it’s great to own a pet
Many studies have been conducted on the effects of pets on loneliness and depression. Generally the results indicate that pets relieve feelings of sadness. Research from the Society for Companion Animal Studies states that simply playing with, talking to, or petting an animal decreases cortisol—the human stress hormone—and increases levels of hormones that cause feelings of happiness and energy.

Animals can also play a part in keeping us physically healthy. After conducting heart studies on pet owners, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health have found that pet owners exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, which can minimize the risk of heart problems.

The student lifestyle often leaves minimal time for exercise and physical activity. Owning an animal can help students become more active. Walking a dog is beneficial to not only maintaining a healthy heart, but to keeping physically fit as well. If a dog needs to go to the bathroom, there’s no waiting to go for a walk or jog on another day, and chasing a cat around the backyard or even around the house makes for the perfect exercise opportunity.

Natalie Pona, the communications manager at the Ottawa Humane Society (OHS) says that if students are ready to take on the responsibilities of owning a pet, getting an animal can also help students mature. Animals force their owner to adapt their schedule to fit the needs of their pet, and therefore teach the importance of flexibility.

“You can’t suddenly have a situation where [pets] are no longer convenient for your lifestyle,” says Pona. “You have to be able to accept that you might face changes in moving or in schedules, but you still have to care for that animal.”

The benefits to owning a pet are definitely enticing. However, there are other aspects of pet ownership that students have to consider.

At what cost?
Although students may have intentions of properly caring for pets and keeping them healthy and happy, it’s incredibly challenging—especially for those on a tight budget—to ensure their animals are properly cared for.

If you and your roommates decide that you’re ready for a pet, it’s important that you sit down and make sure you understand the financial responsibilities that accompany it.

The first expense is the initial purchase of an animal. While some species of birds and hamsters generally only cost between $15 and $50 at local pet stores, dogs and cats are a lot more expensive. Their purchase fee can go from a couple hundred dollars to beyond a thousand.

Though the cheapest way to properly secure a pet is to adopt one, there are still fees that go with it. The OHS has many animals in need of a home, but the price of adoption varies depending on the species and age of the animal. Adult dogs cost $290, younger puppies $350, older cats $170, and kittens $225. Smaller animals like birds and rodents generally range from $9 to $80.

Pets may be costly, but keep in mind that the expense of caring for them is greater than its initial price.

Dishing out the initial fee may seem doable if you’ve been working all summer and have some extra money saved up. The real expense is the cost to properly care for them and the unforeseen charges that come with them.

Having to care for his cat Dippy taught second-year University of Ottawa student Kyle Christopher that owning an animal comes with unexpected costs and that financially, “No pet should be taken lightly.”

“Cats, even though they are less expensive than dogs, still cost money to own and to take care of,” he says. “The vet bills can be a real pain because you never know what could happen, giving you a sudden unexpected expense that you might not be able to pay.”

Veterinary bills can be difficult for double income families to handle, let alone students. The cost of routine annual cat and dog vaccinations alone is around $140, according to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA), and unexpected surgeries can be upwards of $2,000 plus aftercare costs.

The OMVA also estimates that the average annual cost of caring for an adult 10-pound cat is approximately $800, and kittens can be even more costly—about $1,600 for a female kitten and $1,500 for a male kitten.

Other things to think about
For those who really want an animal, the high price may not seem insurmountable. However, the amount of time and effort required for animals shouldn’t be trivialized when considering whether or not to purchase one.

Many pet owners make the mistake of thinking that their pet only needs food and exercise to survive. But animals also need constant company and interaction. There’s a reason dogs jump up to greet their owner at the door after a five-minute absence—the same reason why cats curl up on peoples’ laps. They crave attention and need to feel wanted.

Pona knows the busy schedule students tend to adopt and says that an animal just can’t handle being left alone for long periods of time during the day.

“As a student, you want to go out and you spend long hours in classes,” she says. “But your animal, who is alone all day, really depends on you for socialization. You have to be willing to devote that time and sometimes miss out on going out.”

Pona and the OHS staff witness the problems encountered by people who decide to purchase a pet on a whim. Every year, the OHS rescues and cares for about 11,000 pets, many of which have been abandoned, neglected, or even abused by their owners.

Adopting a pet shouldn’t be an impulsive decision; it should be carefully planned over a long period of time. Pona stresses that animals are a commitment and can’t be regarded as disposable. Adopting a cat just to stave off loneliness during the year then abandoning it or releasing it to a shelter when it’s time to move out in the summer shouldn’t be an option.

Because students have such an unstable lifestyle, it’s necessary for them to analyze not only their current situation, but also the situation they’ll be living in for the next few years. According to Christopher, the hardest part of owning a pet is taking it with you when you change homes.

“If you sign a one-year lease and plan on moving, it makes it harder to find places,” he said. “You have to search for pet-friendly apartments or houses, as well as pet-friendly roommates.”

Finding those roommates can be difficult. Some students may get discouraged by their past experiences with pets and refuse to move in with pet owners. U of O student Lu Cheng Yang decided to be tolerant when he moved in with two girls who each already owned a dog. He isn’t having a positive experience.

“We have a backyard, but the dogs are getting older and one of them can’t go out as much,” he explains. “As a result, they set up a litter box in the house, but now the house I’m living in smells.”

He says he’s irritated with his roommates’ dogs at times and the whole situation can get rather annoying. It’s issues like these that deter landlords from allowing pets on their premises and make potential roommates toss out your apartment inquiries.

If you decide you’re ready
If you weigh the pros and cons of purchasing a pet, and decide you want to commit to an animal friend, there are choices and preparations you have to make.

Firstly, it’s important to consider where you’ll be buying your pet. Though a pet shop may seem like an obvious option, there are deterrents to consider. Buying from a pet store means you won’t know anything about the origin of your animal. You don’t know if the animal has a strong genetic predisposition for certain types of health problems, and that could end up costing you a fortune in veterinary bills. Also, animals that spend months living in cages generally aren’t properly socialized and will likely exhibit behavioural issues as they age.

Specialized breeders are the most expensive option, and according to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, they can often be a backyard breeder—an owner who breeds intentionally without a license or one who’s animal may have had a litter on accident but sells the offspring anyway. These breeders usually sell pets that haven’t been health-screened, making the process for the purchaser incredibly pricey in vet bills and health care for their animal.

Buying from a breeder does have its upsides if you do research on the breeder and ensure he or she has positive reviews and the proper certifications. A breeder will be able to tell you the genetic predispositions of the animal and answer more in-depth questions than most pet shop employees.

The third option is to adopt from an animal shelter. While there are adoption fees, these cover things like six-week pet insurance, spaying or neutering—which is essential if you don’t want a territorial tomcat peeing all over your house—and the first set of vaccines, which are all additional fees you have to consider if you are buying an animal from a store or breeder.

Another benefit to adopting, according to Pona, is that the OHS offers adoption follow-up if any questions or concerns arise after a pet has been adopted.

It’s also important to take time to think about your lifestyle and which species of pet would be best suited for it. If you live in an apartment, chances are your landlord won’t allow dogs but may allow cats or smaller animals. You might want to have an outdoor cat, but living in an apartment isn’t conducive to the come-and-go lifestyle of an outside feline.

Alternatives to pet ownership
If you’re unsure about your ability to commit to a pet for a long period of time, there are other options that require less commitment.

The Student Academic Success Service and Health Promotion offices offer dog therapy sessions every other Monday and Friday in the Jock Turcot University Centre Terminus from 10 to 11 a.m. Any student can go in and relax with either of the two therapy dogs, Sassy and Rusty Bear. This is a commitment-free way to spend some time with animals if you’re stressed out or simply need something to cuddle.

Students living in a stable environment who are unsure of their future after they graduate can volunteer in a variety of different foster care programs offered throughout the city. A foster is someone who gives an animal a temporary home while it waits for a permanent adoption.

Former U of O student Natalie Davis currently volunteers for Under My Wing Pug Rescue, an organization that takes in abandoned and abused pugs in the Ottawa area. Davis believes fostering is the best way for students to feel the benefits of owning a pet without making a commitment they may not be able to handle later in their school career.

“It’s a way more responsible move to foster, especially as a student,” she says. “You only have the dog for as long as you want. You can tell the rescue, ‘I’m going on vacation,’ or, ‘I’m going home for Christmas,’ and they’ll have another foster family take care of the dog for that time.”

Instead of buying a pet you may be forced to surrender to the OHS when you move back home or out of the city, you’re able to keep the pet for a few months at a time until you move. The rescues will generally pay for all the supplies as well, making pet fostering financially viable for students on a tight budget.

Though pets may make great companions, determining whether you’re physically, financially, and mentally ready for the commitment of owning an animal shouldn’t be taken lightly. Like anything else in life, you have to put in the work to reap the rewards.

—With files from Tori Dudys