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Cat lying on the stack of books in the bookstore.
Cat lying on the stack of books in the bookstore.

In a heartwarming celebration of community and companionship, a cat named Max has recently been awarded an honorary “Doctor in Litter-ature” degree by Vermont State University. Known as an emotional support figure during the COVID pandemic and a beloved mascot on campus, Max has been a vibrant part of the university for years, often seen riding in students’ backpacks or starring in photography projects.

cat sits in front of university building

Pictured: Max in front of Vermont State University

While the university doesn’t technically offer doctorates, Max’s degree is a poignant symbolic gesture. “It was just intended to be just kind of lighthearted and kind of a joke but at the same time, realize that this cat did conjure up real feelings and real emotions and was a real support to a lot of people on our campuses during a difficult time,” Vermont State University’s dean of admissions and enrollment services explains in an interview with CNN.

What does Max’s honorary diploma say about our evolving relationship with pets? Let’s explore.

The Phenomenon of Educational Pets

While Max’s degree is symbolic, his story opens the door to a fascinating discussion about the role of pets in educational environments. Traditionally, universities and schools have maintained a human-centric approach to education. However, the integration of pets like Max into these spaces is not just novelty like it may have been decades prior. It’s about acknowledging the profound psychological and emotional support animals can provide to students.

Max brought levity and community to students during a time of extreme uncertainty. This inclusion is part of a broader trend toward recognizing the therapeutic benefits of animal interaction in reducing stress and enhancing emotional well-being in academic settings.

Symbolic Degrees for Pets

In the broader discussion of animals receiving honorary degrees, the context varies significantly. Sometimes, these degrees serve as humorous critiques or satires of academic institutions, particularly those viewed as less credible or termed “diploma mills.” This is done to highlight the absurdity of how easily degrees can be obtained without real academic merit. For example, pets receiving degrees from institutions with questionable accreditation standards are used to underscore this issue. Two specific cases of this are:

  • Chester Ludlow, a pugAwarded an MBA by Rochville University, highlighting the ease of acquiring degrees from diploma mills.
  • Colby Nolan, a house cat Awarded an MBA by Trinity Southern University, raised similar controversy and resulted in a lawsuit for fraud.

On the other hand, instances like Max the Cat receiving an honorary degree often celebrate genuine contributions pets make to human communities, especially in settings like universities where they provide comfort and joy to students and staff. This aspect of honoring animals reflects a recognition of their emotional and social impact, distinguishing these honorary degrees from those given in jest.

A service dog named Justin was awarded his own honorary diploma in 2023 from Seton Hall University for accompanying his mom during classes as she worked toward her own degree. Just three years prior, Moose, an 8-year-old Labrador retriever, received his symbolic dog-torate in veterinary medicine from Virginia Tech, after completing six years of service as a therapy dog at the school. These special distinctions help us celebrate the many roles pets play in our lives, both as recipients of symbolic honors and as integral members of our communities.

Humanizing Pets in Modern Society

This trend also reflects a broader cultural shift in how pets are perceived and valued. Often when we humanize pets, we recognize them as integral members of our families and communities. Not merely animals but partners who share in our daily lives and contribute to our well-being. This perspective is transforming policies and practices, from pet-friendly campuses to therapy animal programs in educational and healthcare facilities. And that is a very good thing.

However, there may be potential downsides to too much pet personification. In some cases, it could lead to unrealistic expectations of their behavior and needs, potentially resulting in frustration for both pet and pet parent. For instance, there has historically been pushback around the use of animal mascots primarily due to concerns about animal welfare and the appropriateness of placing animals in environments that may not meet their natural or behavioral needs. Critics argue that using live animals as symbols can lead to stress and discomfort for the animals involved, pushing for more humane alternatives. Cats generally prefer minimal disruption and seek the comfort of quiet and routine lifestyles, so we should be cautious about pushing for more schools to adopt them into their community without considerations in place for their welfare.

Over-humanizing may also drive owners to impose human traits and emotions on animals, which might not accurately reflect the animal’s true nature or needs. This can sometimes lead to inappropriate care strategies that do not align with the best practices for animal welfare. Moreover, treating pets as humans can blur the lines of pet ownership responsibilities, possibly leading to issues like neglect of basic animal welfare in favor of more ‘human-like’ treatments that may not benefit the pet.

Despite the concerns, the trend of integrating pets into community and educational settings has numerous benefits that can outweigh the challenges if approached with our pets’ best interests in mind. Recognizing cats as valued members of our communities encourages a more empathetic and inclusive society. With the right measures and awareness, we can ensure that our animal companions are respected and cared for appropriately, allowing them to thrive alongside us in diverse environments. This evolving relationship between humans and pets is a testament to our growing understanding and appreciation of the role animals play in enhancing human life.

What Max’s Degree Represents

Max’s honorary degree is more than just a whimsical acknowledgment. It underscores the importance of emotional support in educational achievements and well-being. It prompts us to reconsider the role of pets in academic settings—not just as companions but as catalysts for emotional health and community engagement. As we continue to navigate the complexities of human-animal relationships, stories like Max’s offer valuable insights into the potential for more inclusive and emotionally supportive educational environments.

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