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Animal dorm

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That's been tough for some students.

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"I'd been thinking about moving off-campus, just because I missed him," says Stephens student Shannon Novak of her freshman year without her dog Peanut.

But even then it would be a challenge to find a willing landlord. The sophomore biology major from Nevada, Mo., has only good things to say about having Peanut with her this year - even though she must walk him three to four times a day, rain or shine. "With him around, I'm not alone all the time in here," she says. "When it gets really busy and you're not going out and seeing friends, then there's no social aspect to your day."

For decades the general thinking has been that college students are too busy and too young to take care of animals, says Dr. Libby - and that college is the place where young adults first develop independence and self-reliance as they adjust to life away from home.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Stephens program, she says, is that it was able to happen at all, and she doesn't expect it to become widely popular.

For some students, bringing pets to school is almost like refusing to grow up.

"I know all too well how hard it is to say goodbye to a pet when you go off to college," writes Matthew Reid, an editor at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian in Amherst, Mass. "But when you move into a dorm room, it's a rite of passage, in a way. You are leaving home, gaining independence, and separating yourself from your roots."

Yet some students may need to make that break more gradually, suggests Libby.

"Colleges have had to increase their counseling support for students," she says. "Having pets around does lower the stress level. From our point of view, if that would make a better transition, or help a student stay who might otherwise feel so lonely they might want to go, it was worth trying on a small scale. Although my first reaction was, 'Why would we do this?' my second was, 'Why wouldn't we?' "

The Delta Society, a nonprofit group that promotes the presence of pets in workplaces, says ample research backs up the notion that pets have a calming effect on people of all ages and temperaments.

But animal cruelty remains a concern. At Stephens College, students pay a $200 refundable pet deposit, but they are also required to confine their pets to a kennel or cage anytime they leave their rooms.

All animals must be under 40 pounds in weight, and there is just one small, fenced dog run.

"If [increasing student contact with pets] can minimize stress, we should look into it further," Muscari says. "But people should know there are a lot of things to consider. You might even have the right students owning the animals in the dorms but the wrong ones visiting them."

Despite her doubts about pets in dorms, Muscari is an outspoken proponent of controlled student-pet interaction. "It's simply amazing," she says.

"Animals have no education, but they know exactly what to do and how to do it. Animals have different temperaments, but some of them really have the knack for interaction, for soothing any of us."