Pet Therapy Can Help First-Year University Students Fight Homesickness

October 2, 2016
Kristi Rosa

A new study has found that animal-assisted therapy can help fight homesickness in first-year university students.

For high school students who have decided to leave home to attend college, the transitioning period can be very difficult and taxing to both their mental health and wellbeing. In fact, homesickness can even lead to these students dropping out of college altogether. In a response to this, a new study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, have come up with a tool that may be able to assist in the fight against homesickness and improve students’ overall wellbeing: pet, or animal-assisted therapy.

According to study authors, “Homesickness is a complex condition, one that manifests when an individual leaves home, develops negative thoughts about his/her new environment, has negative emotions toward the transition itself, possesses obsessive thoughts about home, and develops physical and behavioral symptoms as a response to being homesick.”

The authors note that the degree of homesickness will vary depending on the individual and their particular situation from “mild” to “intense.” The symptoms brought on by homesickness range from depression and anxiety, and convoluted and fixated thoughts pertaining to home, to trouble focusing on specific tasks, such as those needed to be fulfilled in order to be successful academically. The study authors also mention that “homesickness renders academically competent students at risk for underperforming.”

Assistant Professor John Tyler Binfet of UBC’s Okanagan campus, said in an official press release, “Transitioning from high school to university can prove to be a challenge for many first-year students. Given that students who experience homesickness are more likely than their non-homesick cohorts to drop out of university, universities have a vested interest in supporting students during their first-year transition.”

The study authors explained the current ways in which universities make the effort to foster social interactions and a sense of belonging on campus. Professors assign a number of tasks that require group work or collaborative efforts, what the study authors refer to as “formal social demands.” They also make note of “informal demands” that include housing arrangements consisting of roommates, dining among peers, as well as “informal support,” consisting of social activities such as sports and clubs. However, even the “informal support” can pose as a social challenge for first-year students who are struggling to adjust to their new environment.

The researchers conducted a study comprised of a total of 44 first-year university students who were recruited by flyers posted around the university. These students identified themselves as homesick and filled out a survey that sought to measure the intensity, or levels, of their homesickness using questions related to “satisfaction with life and connectedness with campus,” according to the press release. The students were split into two equal groups, with one half being a part of a treatment group that received eight weeks of animal-assisted therapy, and the other half in the “wait-list” group that were informed that their treatment would start in eight weeks’ time. The therapy was scheduled for Friday afternoons, a time where the researchers felt that homesick students would feel the most vulnerable due to the impending weekend. At these 45-minute sessions, the students socially interacted with small groups consisting of three or four people with random dogs and handlers.

After the eight-week session, students from both the treatment group and the wait-list group filled out the survey again. The study found that those who were a part of the treatment group, “experienced significant reductions in homesickness and a greater increase in satisfaction with life,” according to the press release. These students “felt like they were at home chatting with friends who brought their puppies.” Conversely, the wait-list group experienced an increased in their feelings of homesickness.

According to Dr. Binfet said, “Many first-year students face the challenge of integrating into their new campus community. Homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of university.”

When speaking of how the animal-assisted therapy affected her, UBC Okanagan student, Varenka Kim said, “Moving to a new city, I did not know anyone at the university and became very homesick and depressed. I was mainly secluded in my dorm room and did not feel like I belonged here. Coming to animal assisted therapy sessions every Friday gave me a sense of purpose and kept me enthusiastic about life.”