Dogs and cats relieve academic stress and lift students' mood, according to a new study

A new study by researchers at Washington State University has revealed that petting dogs and cats can relieve feelings of stress and pressure in college students with a high academic workload. The study was published in the journal AERA Open on the 12th June, 2019 and was titled, “Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

Student stroking dog on green sofa.Damir Khabiro | Shutterstock

Lead researcher Patricia Pendry, an associate professor in WSU's Department of Human Development, commented on the research, “Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact. Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.”

Pendry, along with WSU graduate student Jaymie Vandagriff, showed that petting cats and dogs relieves stress by reducing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in the saliva.

The study involved 249 college students who were randomly divided into four groups. They were recruited over three semesters from a research university in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. One of the groups received an allotted 10 minutes time to be spent in company of cats or dogs (73 students were in this group).

These students were asked to play and pet and spend the allotted time with the pets. For the purpose of the study, the team included some cats and dogs brought in from the pet shelters. Another group was asked to observe while others petted the animals and were asked to wait for their turn when they could play or pet the animals (62 students were in this group).

The third group was asked to watch a slide show showing the same animals and the fourth group of students were not allowed any time with the pets remote or actual (57 students were in this group).

The fourth group was asked to wait for 10 minutes without their phones or any reading material or any other activity that could keep them occupied. They were however assured that they would soon be allowed some time with the animals. This was a “waitlisted group” and included 57 participants.

Saliva samples were collected from each participant at different time points during the day and used to measure cortisol levels. The first sample was collected in the morning when the students woke up. The next samples were collected 15 and 25 minutes after the 10 minute intervention. This revealed the levels of cortisol at baseline and end of the intervention.

Just 10 minutes of petting could reduce stress

Students who had hands-on experience with the animals for the 10 minutes showed a small increase in cortisol levels after interacting with the animals. This was significant among all the students in the group – irrespective of whether they had higher or lower levels of cortisol or stress at the start of the study.

We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions. What we wanted to learn was whether this exposure would help students reduce their stress in a less subjective way. And it did, which is exciting because the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health.”

Patricia Pendry, Lead Author

This was a first Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) of its kind. The authors concluded, “This RCT demonstrates that petting animals during a 10-minute, college-based animal visitation program (AVP) featuring shelter cats and dogs lowered salivary cortisol levels of students compared to those who merely observed, watched still images of the same animals, and waited without external stimuli. Results suggest college-based AVPs may provide effective stress relief.”

Next, the researchers will assess cortisol levels over four weeks. They expect this long association could help relieve the stress among the college students to a great extent.

Journal reference:

Pendry, P. & Vandagriff, J. L. (2019). Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. AERA Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858419852592.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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