US researchers surveyed a sample of new first-year college students leaving pets at home and found that 75 per cent experienced some level of pet separation anxiety—with one in four reporting moderate to severe symptoms.
While there are many anecdotal accounts of students missing their pets, the study by Washington State University researchers —and published in Anthrozoos—is the first known research investigating this kind of pet separation anxiety in humans.
The students who had higher anxiety tended to be those who treated their pets more like people, identifying them as friends, sleeping in the same room and generally spending a lot of time with them. Interestingly, students who had dogs at home also tended to report more attachment to their pets—and more separation anxiety—than those with cats and other types of pets.
The researchers surveyed a sample of about 150 incoming first-year students who had pets at home.
The researchers surveyed the group before they arrived on campus and after their first two weeks of the semester in fall 2019 before the pandemic forced many universities online. The students answered questions related to their mental health, attachment to their pets and feelings about leaving them behind.
Even after controlling for pre-existing mental health issues, the researchers found that pet-related separation anxiety was very strong in the group during the transition to college, especially among students who were closely attached to their pets.
The findings indicate this is an issue for many students and should be taken seriously by campus counsellors. It also has implications for pet visitation programs now popular at many US universities which bring animals to campus to help stressed students.
The authors said more research is needed to understand the implications of pet separation anxiety.
But they also cautioned that this study should not be used as justification for students to bring their pets with them when they go to college.