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College students feel separation anxiety when leaving pets at home, study finds

Dog owners were more attached to their pets than those who had other kinds of animals at home

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Photo (c) syrotkin images - Getty Images
College students are no strangers to stress. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Washington State University explored how they may also be struggling with separation anxiety. According to their findings, leaving pets at home to go away to college may increase symptoms associated with separation anxiety. 

“Students who are struggling with missing their pets should know that they’re not alone,” said researcher Alexa Carr. “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.” 

Coping with anxiety

For the study, the researchers surveyed 150 first-year college students who also had pets at home. Participants were surveyed before the semester started and then again two weeks into the first semester. They answered questions about how attached they were to their pets, their mental health, and how they felt being separated from their pets. 

The researchers found that 75% of the participants had symptoms consistent with separation anxiety related to leaving to their pets. For those who reported significant attachments to their pets, or who had dogs at home, those symptoms were even more severe. 

The researchers also identified several other factors that increased the risk and severity of separation anxiety for first-time college students: sleeping with pets, spending a significant amount of time with pets, talking to pets, identifying pets as friends, and treating pets like people. 

Because of how widespread this issue is, the researchers wonder how these findings will impact future pet-related policies at universities around the country. While therapy animals have proven to be beneficial for college students’ mental health, giving students the opportunity to house their pets on-campus may be problematic long-term. 

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

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