Your first step into adulthood: Getting a pet

The time students spend in college is a stage in life that some might call a trial period of adulthood. For many, the moment you move your belongings out of that childhood bedroom and into your freshman dorm room is the first time you can say you are truly on your own — at least as “on your own” as you can be in college, of course. Independence is a scale that varies for every student. 

There is a lot to be said, though, about the changes students go through after experiencing that shift from dependence to self-sufficiency. It’s been my observation that many students handle it in different ways. Being away from home can give you the confidence to take up something that you never thought you would.

For many students, that new experience would be becoming a pet owner. It’s a bold step that requires a lot of dedication, discipline and responsibility.

Consequently, those qualities are just what many students need at this time in their lives. They are valuable tools in academic settings and strong building blocks for later in life.

The need for responsible and loving pet owners in the world is apparent. Animal shelters worldwide take in approximately 6.5 million animals every year, with about 1.5 million of those being euthanized.

From 2020 to 2021, Coconino Humane Association reported an intake of 2,150 animals, while High Country Humane reported 2,944. There are thousands of animals available that would benefit from having a home.

Admittedly, getting a pet is not for every student. Animals need to be fed, provided with comfortable shelter, walked, socialized and loved. There are plenty of reasons why college students should avoid becoming pet owners until absolutely ready. However, that does not mean it should be ruled out immediately.

It almost goes without saying how helpful pets can be for students. Pets are proven to be great stress reducers as well as sources of companionship. They improve mood by increasing exercise, boosting confidence and adding daily structure. NAU has even offered “PAWS Your Stress” events in the past, making use of the calming effects animals can have on anxious students.

But the reward of pet ownership goes much deeper.

Pets can help you form a bond you might never encounter otherwise. Taking on the immense responsibility of caring for a living being is an experience that can teach you brand-new corners of life: Your parenting and teaching styles, discipline and routine. 

That is not to say anyone who does well at raising a pet should consider that to be their green light to becoming an actual parent. It may be a valid method of evaluating your skills as a parent, but raising children and animals are not comparable. The former is a life decision of massive proportions, and the latter should be treated with much more value than just a test run.

I also do not intend to suggest pet ownership is some sort of pipeline to parenthood. Pet ownership and parenthood can be mutually exclusive, and pet ownership does not exist to serve as a replacement for raising a child. You can adopt an animal without it having to be a precursor or an alternative to having kids.

Whether or not you want to become a parent, understanding that perspective is undoubtedly invaluable. Being able to fathom that mindset can connect you to adulthood like no other.

College is a challenging period; transitioning into adulthood presents an unexpected reckoning that not many are prepared for. I have concluded after countless conversations with peers who testify to the same experience that most students reach a point where everything changes — not just in an “I don’t know how to do taxes” way, but in a way that’s very raw and real.

It’s not sudden — it slowly becomes apparent that your life will never be as it once was. It’s complex and incredibly difficult to navigate on top of managing academic and social lives, but most students have to learn that lesson somehow.

Getting a pet can teach you the same lessons while reducing the confusion and anxiety of it all. I would imagine it can even make that realization more apparent, a fact of life that comes with your responsibility. 

We can clearly learn a lot from our pets and the time and energy that goes into raising them. There’s a strong sense of growth that can be gained by taking in a pet. While it’s important to reflect on how they impact us, it’s even more important to understand how we impact them. 

Pets need loving homes with responsible, dedicated owners. If you are open and able to do so, adopting a pet could be your next best step toward becoming an adult.

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