The study, conducted by researchers from Washington State University (WSU), found that the general well-being of the study participants ?— all college students ?— improved quickly after petting cats and dogs. This improvement was seen even in people who were highly stressed, according to the study's researchers, who noted that they found a “significant” reduction in cortisol? — the hormone that the body produces during times of stress ?— in the participants.
The WSU researchers looked into the stress of college students. Many universities have already adopted animal-assisted therapy programs, mostly involving cats or dogs, where stressed-out students can interact with the animals.
As detailed in the study, the researchers took 249 college students and divided them into four groups. All of the students gave saliva samples, taken both before and after they interacted with the cats and dogs. The researchers used these to test for cortisol levels.
The first group of students was the only one to participate in pet therapy. They played and interacted with the animals freely for ten minutes. The second group observed the first group while they waited for their ten minutes of playtime. The third group was shown pictures of the animals while they waited for their turn. Lastly, the fourth group was given nothing and simply told to wait in line for their turn to play with the animals – a turn that never came.
The study showed that even just brief interaction with the cats and dogs significantly lowered the cortisol levels of the students.
“Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact,” Patricia Pendry, one of the researchers and an associate professor in WSU's Department of Human Development, said. “Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.”
Pendry stated that she and her colleagues already knew that interacting with animals elicited “positive emotions” from students. What their study wanted to figure out was whether the experiences of the students reduced their stress “in a less subjective way.”
“And it did,” said Pendry triumphantly, “which is exciting because the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health.”
Pendry further hopes that their study, which was published in the journal AERA Open, can help schools develop long-term stress prevention programs that involve animal-assisted therapy. (Related: Contagious emotions: Study suggests dogs mirror owner's stress levels.)
Pendry and her colleagues are right to worry about the dangers of stress. Stress is usually self-limiting, meaning that once the perceived stressor passes, your body's hormone levels return to normal.
However, when the stressors are always present, the body's stress-response system stays turned on. There are plenty of reasons why people would constantly feel stress, such as having bills to pay, a family to take care of or, in the case of Pendry's study participants, very demanding academic requirements.
If your body's stress-response system is activated for longer periods of time, your body produces more cortisol and other stress hormones. This can disrupt many of your body's natural processes, putting you at increased risk of many health problems, such as:
This is why Pendry and her team are right to be concerned for the well-being of students, especially since the levels of academic stress, depression, anxiety and, worst of all, suicidal ideation, are increasing in many places. Without any proper action, either through long-term animal-assisted therapy programs or other interventions, the mental health of many college students may continue to deteriorate under the stress of academic life.