The paws-itive benefits of having a pet during graduate school

Lily Neff
December 20, 2021
Stressed businesswoman with glasses sitting behind home office desk, cat is watching her.
Businesswoman working behind her home office desk with a cat by her side. Licensed from

In September of my first year of graduate school, my fiancé and I decided to adopt our first furry companion: a female kitten with dilute turtle markings whom we decided to name Nittany. Her kitten antics were adorable and hilarious, but some of my fondest memories of her are when she would sit on the office table next to me while I studied the first-year curriculum every night. It was easy to just reach over and pet her. Plus, her purrs and cute gaze gave me the comfort and motivation to keep studying. It was like I had my own personal cheerleader next to me, and it made the first year of graduate school so much easier.  

Many of us know the fun experiences that come with having a dog or cat as part of the family; to come home to a wagging tail, purrs and cuddle time while sleeping or watching tv, and the funny antics that we can record to watch again later, but the positive effects of pet ownership go well beyond our common experiences and fun memories.

There are numerous health benefits to having a furry companion by our side. For example, pets can reduce our cortisol levels, the stress hormone, when we interact with them. Lowering our cortisol levels reduces our stress while also decreasing the chance of developing anxiety and/or depression. This is especially important for graduate students because they are over six times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression than the general population. Getting accepted into graduate school is a great achievement, and now you’re one step closer to obtaining your career aspirations, but graduate school can be a long and arduous journey where the end goal can often be forgotten. However, having ways to manage the trials and tribulations of graduate school is a necessity, and your furry companion could help you in this way. 

"Pets can help people cope with loneliness and isolation. This is particularly evident during the pandemic where approximately one in five households have adopted an animal since the beginning of COVID-19."

-- Lily Neff

A survey conducted on two groups, college students and individuals over the age of 30, demonstrated that one of the most common reasons for both groups keeping a pet was because pets helped keep them active. Pets can help increase our exercise level and enhance our outdoor activities. This can lead to several health benefits including decreased cholesterol levels and reduced blood pressure. Additionally, pets can help people cope with loneliness and isolation. This is particularly evident during the pandemic where approximately one in five households have adopted an animal since the beginning of COVID-19.

Furthermore, in a classroom setting, pets can make learning fun. For example, lessons can be interactive with the classroom pet or prompts for subjects like math and writing can utilize the class pet as the focal point. Along with this, the reading ability of children increased when they read to a dog compared to an adult or teddy bear. Overall, a classroom pet stimulates learning in children and can make going to school more enjoyable, especially for students who don’t have a pet at home.

But what about “unconventional” pets like guinea pigs, geckos or birds? Research has shown that guinea pigs can improve social functioning in children. Research hasn’t used reptiles or birds, but I believe this provides support for the thought that developing a connection with an animal, whether it be furry, scaly or feathery, may be enough to create a positive impact for that individual.

To those of you who don’t have a furry companion waiting at home, MUSC has brought therapy dogs to the library before to provide comfort and support to students, so going to see them may be a new way for you to reduce you stress levels during graduate school. Also, you could try fostering as a short-term option to see if you’re ready to adopt a furry companion, or you can volunteer at a local pet shelter.

So, if you can, find yourself a furry companion – or a feathery or scaly one – that can help you de-stress and tackle graduate school, like Nittany has for me when she sat with me each night as I studied the first-year curriculum.