Medical

A Guide to Pets During Medical School and Residency

Pets can be wonderfully rewarding companions. In fact, psychological and physical benefits in humans have been associated with animal interactions.1 However, pets may not be ideal or realistic for everyone. How can you know if a pet is right for you during the long journey of medical training?

As a bit of background, I basically grew up in a zoo. Because my parents generally enjoy animals too, my siblings and I were able to convince them (albeit sometimes reluctantly) to let us get all sorts of pets. Throughout my life, my family has welcomed dogs and cats as new members, but they were not the only ones. At various points, we cared for fish, a rabbit, hermit crabs, birds, a bearded dragon, and a ball python. (I promise we’re not as crazy in real life as we sound here.) Notably, I took care of the bearded dragon, Vic, during the preclinical years in medical school.

With that long history of pet experience to draw on, I present some considerations for having a pet in medical school or residency.

Assess Your Situation

The situation you find yourself in for medical school or residency will play an important role in deciding whether to get a pet, as well as what kind of pet to get. (This is all assuming that you don’t have any specific animal allergies.)

Here are some important situational considerations:

  • Is your housing pet-friendly? If you’re renting, as most med students do, it’s important to determine if the available housing will allow pets. Some have strict no-pets policies, some allow certain kinds of pets but not others, and some will charge extra if you have a pet. For example, my current contract levies a $500 fee for cats, dogs, and other free-ranging indoor animals, but allows animals that live in a cage or tank. Another consideration: will there be enough room for the pet you want? A husky is NOT going to enjoy a studio apartment.
  • How does your financial situation look? Pets can be expensive. Pet food, cages and other equipment, veterinarian bills if your pet gets sick, as well as possible fees and bills from your landlord can factor in here. This can make things especially complicated if you’re moving to a high cost-of-living area, if you have a lot of undergraduate/medical school debt, or if your housing arrangements are not pet-friendly.
  • Do you have a support system in the area? If things come up, it can be helpful if you know people in the area who can watch your pet for a few days. Significant others or roommates may allow you more flexibility in pet care. If you don’t know anyone in your area, it might be helpful to wait a few months before getting a pet in order to assess the situation, get to know new friends and coworkers, and get settled in. This could also allow you to identify what resources are available. At my medical school, students and residents have access to school-wide email lists, which they often use to find pet sitters. My classmates often approach friends for pet care, and residents have even asked us on occasion if we might be interested in pet watching as well. Some time to settle into your routine and identify these opportunities will help you make things work with your potential new companion.
  • What are the demands of your program? Is class attendance required? How long does class run each day, and about how long do you plan on studying each day? Does your medical school/residency send you to away sites for rotations, and if so, how long do those last, are housing arrangements provided, and do those allow pets? Finally, will you have enough time to dedicate to a pet that is very fond of attention (and who might freak out if you’re away for long periods of time)?

The list isn’t exhaustive, but these are all important considerations when choosing a pet. Your answers to these questions will help you decide which pets could bring you the most possible happiness while avoiding the most possible stress. With the above in mind, you can then factor in the needs, benefits, and challenges of different kinds of pets.

Pet-specific information:

Dogs

Dogs are some of the most trusted companions humanity has had; their “best friend” descriptor is well earned. Dogs range widely in size, shape, appearance, demeanor, and needs. By and large, dogs require a steady, healthy diet and water supply, activity/play, grooming, training, and they are often happy with as much attention as you can give them! Dogs are very emotive and can respond during times of joy and sadness. They can be great sources of comfort and love to be with their humans.

Dogs can live indoors or outdoors; larger dogs with high energy levels especially benefit from lots of room to move around and play, but this can be difficult as medical students are less likely to live in a house with a yard, and even residents may find apartment living helps them balance their living costs. However, smaller dog breeds may be well-suited to apartments and indoor life. It may be best to consider dog breeds who are comfortable with a little bit less attention, since medical training is a very busy job. Keep in mind that some breeds of dogs may also shed a lot, apartments may not allow them, and some may tend to smell unless properly groomed and bathed.

Depending on the situation from which the dog is coming, different dogs may require different amounts of training and may need to be taken for walks and taken out to the bathroom—take these things into consideration with your schedule. If you’ve had a rough day, dogs will be there, faithfully waiting to help you feel better. If you’ve had a great day, they’ll be even more excited than you about it.

Visit this site for more information on specific dog breeds, and this dog breed selector can help you find the breeds that fit with your situation. There are other similar dog breed quizzes online as well that can help you find the best fit.

Cats

With their entertaining demeanor and hilarious quirks earning them internet fame, cats have become another common household pet. Cats come in many shapes and sizes and also require a certain amount of instruction in order to become house trained. They are frequently more content with less attention (although this varies by cat) and thus may be more tolerant of longer stretches without their human. They are also more likely to be happy living in a smaller living space. However, they also may shed and might not be allowed in all apartment complexes. Additionally, they will still need to be provided with a healthy diet and water at regular intervals, and their litter box will need to be cleaned out. Getting to give them cuddles, have them sit in your lap, and hear them purr will always brighten your day.

For more information on adopting a cat, visit this site.

Fish

“There are plenty of fish in the sea.” When it’s not being applied to a friend who’s been rejected, this statement has literal truth to it as well. Fish comprise another group of pets that are incredibly varied and provide a lot of options. They come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and behaviors. Unfortunately, they are not the kind of pet that you can enjoy petting and playing with, given their different ways of getting oxygen. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t bring some joy to your life. Where other pets are more playful and affectionate, fish bring a sort of zen to your apartment. Listening to the water filter running while you watch them swim around, looking for food, and interacting with each other can be relaxing and surprisingly entertaining.

Keep in mind that different fish have different needs; stores like Petsmart and Petco will rate each fish species’ behavior as appropriate for community, semi-aggressive, and aggressive aquariums. As the name suggests, aggressive species will pick on other kinds of fish and may kill community-type fish, so they need to be housed only with other aggressive types (often of the same species) that can hold their own with them. Fish like mollies, guppies, neon tetras, goldfish, and zebrafish are typically community dwellers that get along with each other.

Equipment is more of a consideration here than with other pets. You of course need a tank, water filter, water treatments to get the chemical balances right, and often thermometers/heaters to regulate the temperature if you have warm-water fish, not to mention decorations and plants to liven up the aquarium. Goldfish can live in a bowl (as long as you clean it), while other species need all of the above, so the complexity is as variable as the fish species are. The general guideline for tank size is “one gallon per inch of fish,” so if you get a fish that is 1 inch long at its adult size, it needs at least 1 gallon to swim in. However, this is just a heuristic, as discussed in this article. That site gives good, more detailed information about fish in general as well.

Birds

Birds, like fish, have unique equipment needs—cages, bird food diet (not just seed), perches, toys, bedding. However, they do bring the actual “petting” back into having a pet. Some bird species are very affectionate and enjoy being handled, held, and petted. Cockatiels and parakeets are my particular area of experience with birds, and it’s the cockatiels I’m especially fond of. Cockatiels are known for loving having their neck scratched, and will sit on their human’s shoulder or explore the room. They are very calm, friendly birds and make great pets, especially for someone who may not have had pet birds before. Birds may be noisy whistlers depending on species (and sometimes gender – our male cockatiel sang a LOT), so this may need particular consideration with apartment living. In addition, finding a vet who can care for birds (as well as the other non-cat or dog animals on this list) can be more difficult, causing stress if your pet’s health is in question and leaving the pet at risk.

Here is a good website for more information about cockatiels (and birds in general).

Reptiles

Reptiles are another unique pet that can make good companions for busy professionals. They can be pretty low maintenance, chill animals that don’t require a ton of extra attention, but at the same time can be held and petted. Similar to fish and birds, they require some equipment to keep—tanks, heaters (they are cold-blooded), bedding, hiding places/toys, and food/water. Bearded dragons are popular pet lizards, but they may have different personalities. For example, the dragon I had was a very picky eater who required more attention than most bearded dragons, so it’s important to have some flexibility with these pets. Ball pythons are another pet that are even lower maintenance; the python my family cares for eats a rat once every week or two, and otherwise just needs a water bowl. Reptiles are very different than the soft and fluffy dogs and cats, but for those who appreciate them, they are excellent pets.

Other Pets

Pets certainly aren’t limited to the more common types discussed above. Small mammals, such as hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, and rabbits, can be enjoyable pets for many individuals. These might be a good fit for people without a lot of space, although guinea pigs and rabbits will take up more space and require more food, water, and bedding than would hamsters and mice. Hermit crabs are fairly low maintenance (a cage, food, water, and extra shells if they are still growing) and take up little room, but may not be the cuddly companion many are looking for. For the right person, however, they can be a great pet.

The Bottom Line

The ultimate question: do the benefits of owning and caring for a pet—companionship, relaxation, stress relief, personal happiness—outweigh the time, cost, and effort required to care for them during a potentially stressful training period? Having pets can be incredibly fun, but make sure your situation will support having them around so you can make the most of it, for the good of both you and your pet!

Reference

  1. Matchock RL: Pet ownership and physical health. Curr Opin Psychiatry 28:386–92, 2015 Available: https://insights.ovid.com/crossref?an=00001504-201509000-00009. Accessed 21 April 2019
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Harrison Snyder is a 3rd year medical student at the University of Virginia. When he’s not in the hospital or studying (which admittedly isn’t ver...
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I appreciate your thoughts specially pet specific information that's really nice.
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