Student and cat

OU junior Yishu Sheng (from China) with her friend’s Russian blue mix cat Calvin. She’s also caring for several other friends’ pets this summer.

In the middle of a laid-back summer party in Athens, a girl named Yishu Sheng, an Ohio University junior from China, decided to leave early. She had to hurry home to take care of four animal roommates – two dogs, a cat and a hamster, though none of them is her own pet.

Since the end of the spring semester, she has been pet-sitting seven animals for six friends who went back to China.

“Right now, there are four pets in my apartment, a teacup poodle, an American Eskimo, a Russian blue mix, and a teddy bear hamster,” she said. She has returned two hamsters and a cat to the owners who already have come back to Athens.

While most international students rush home for vacation, Sheng stays in town the entire summer for class. Obviously, taking care of friends’ pets is a plus with her full-time class schedule.

“I walk the dogs three times a day and feed them twice a day at regular hours,” Sheng said. “Cats and hamsters are easier; I just need to scoop the poop and supply the food.”

This is not a single story. Another Chinese OU student, Shengzhe Wang, who majors in business, also has a full house of furry friends whose owners are currently abroad.

“At peak, my apartment is overrun with one dog and four cats,” Wang said.

These animal friends are no strangers to Wang, nor is this summer his first job as a pet-sitter. Among his animal guests, the dog is a high-energy Siberian husky owned by his roommate. All four cats are from his friends, and one of them, a chubby ginger-colored tabby cat called “Pong Pong,” has become his long-time responsibility since Wang lost touch with Pong Pong’s owner.

Though animal lovers, Sheng and Wang choose not to own pets while attending college for similar reasons: A pet comes along with huge responsibility. As students studying abroad, they are not able to provide stable homes for pets. Renting with pets is difficult. Finding places to board pets during off-school seasons is also a challenge. The biggest problem, however, is how to deal with the pet when they graduate and return to their home country.

“Personally, I know it’s difficult to bring a pet to another country,” said Chris DiStasio, lecturer in the Ohio Program of Intensive English (OPIE) at OU. He is also a cat lover, who with his significant other, are currently caring for nine cats, most of them who were strays.

Before settling in Athens, DiStasio adopted two cats during his stay in Turkey. After two years, he was leaving Turkey and planning to bring his beloved cat, Altin, along with him. His story didn’t have the happiest ending, though Altin apparently ended up OK. (The Athens NEWS is planning to run a Readers Forum by DiStasio on this topic in Monday’s issue).

 “I did look into it,” he said, noting that he tried to get certifications, shots and other approvals and bring his cat home. He gave up because of the time pressure to get through the complicated process, and more importantly, the potential cruelty his cat could suffer from the long-distance travel. He actually had taken his cat on a domestic flight, and during that 90-minute trip, his cat was already “shaky and nervous.”

In the end, DiStasio said he decided that was easier to find his cat a new home than to drag it around the world. He handed over Altin to a cat shelter he felt he could trust in Turkey. He said he still regrets leaving the cat behind.

The students DiStasio teaches are all international. He builds “close connection” with them, and one of his cats is from a former international student who left for home. He said he often tells his students to think twice before getting a pet during college, because the experience of leaving a pet still makes him “really sad.”   

 “Students should check very carefully what they need to do to successfully bring the pet back to the home country,” said DiStasio.

For those who plan to take their pets overseas, he provides a checklist of Must-Dos: knowing the policy of the destination country, checking the airline rules, preparing veterinary and vaccine certifications, ensuring the condition of the new home, getting approval from future co-residents, anticipating flight and quarantine difficulties for pets, and so on.

Beside the complexity of the procedure, it can be expensive to ship pets overseas. According to Transitions Abroad.com, the cost includes multiple charges such as transportation, certifications, vaccinations, notarization, travel supplies, and custom charges in the destination country.

Nevertheless, the prospective troubles aren’t enough to discourage some students from getting furry companions.

APART FROM FUTURE CONCERNS, immediate problems arise for student pet owners.

“All the pets I’m looking after are bought from pet stores,” said Sheng.

Not knowing other options to get pets, most international students turn to pet stores without a second thought.

According to Sally Jo Kuntz, general manager of Petland, a chain pet store on East State Street, five to 10 percent of her customers are international students, and the majority are Chinese. She said she has helped her customers to board and housetrain their animals when they’re away.

“Buying pets from pet stores is not something we support,” said Heather McDowell, board member and education officer of Athens County Humane Society.

Shelley Lieberman, the owner of Friendly Paws Pet Supplies & Grooming, also advocates adopting and rescuing animals instead of buying. She tries to get the word out by giving lectures to international students in OPIE.

“A lot of people have no ideas that the pets in Petland (and other chain stores) come from puppy mills where parents of these puppies are living in terrible conditions,” she said.

McDowell agreed. “Buying pets from pet stores could contribute to the overpopulation of cats and dogs, which is an absolute problem in Athens Country, even nationwide.”

Both McDowell and Lieberman suggest people who want to get pets use resources such as Petfinder.com for adoptable pets. Plus, McDowell said that people who are breed-oriented often can locate area rescue groups for specific dog breeds.

“They’re not going to get a tiny little fluffy puppy, but there are all these pets who need homes,” Lieberman said.

Although student pet ownership can be problematic, sources interviewed for this article agreed that as long as the student is ready for the commitment, he or she can be as good a pet owner as anyone.

“Students should expect time and energy before raising pets,” said McDowell

 Also, she said that students should expect a 10- to 15-year life span for dogs and cats.

Keeping pets also means financial responsibilities.

DiStasio said that cat owners should anticipate “money for vet, neuter and spay” on top of kibble and litter. McDowell points out that the medical expenses for dogs must be taken into consideration, as well.

Regular flea and heartworm treatments can get costly, too.

Above all, what the pets need most from owners is attention and love. Lieberman said she notices that some students lack the knowledge of “properly treating and housetraining their puppies.” She even hears the complaint that “some students don’t train dogs to go outside” from a housing complex.

Even for cats that don’t need to be walked, “they need certain levels of attention depending on the cat,” said DiStasio.

In fact, international students can be as good or as bad pet owners as anyone else. Based on her previous experience with international students, Kuntz expressed confidence in foreign students’ ability to be good pet owners.

“They come back all the time to buy food and vitamin, and get the pets groomed,” she said. “They are very persistent.” Kuntz has also seen successful cases of Chinese students taking their pets back home when they’re finished at OU.

“For students in general, getting pets is a big commitment, not to be taken lightly,” said McDowell.

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