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Interacting with animals can significantly reduce stress

Many universities have initiated “Pet Your Stress Away” programs to give college students the opportunity to interact with cats and dogs to help alleviate stress. Scientists at Washington State University demonstrated that these programs have substantial stress-relieving physiological benefits.

“Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact,” said Professor Patricia Pendry. “Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.”

The research is the first of its kind to provide evidence of reduced cortisol levels among students during a real-life intervention. The study was focused on 249 college students who were randomly divided into four groups. 

The first group interacted with cats and dogs for ten minutes and were allowed to pet and play with the animals. The second group observed others petting the animals while waiting in line for their turn. 

The third group watched a slideshow of the same animals, while the fourth group was “waitlisted” for ten minutes and were told they would see and interact with the animals soon. 

The team collected several saliva cortisol samples from each participant, beginning in the morning when they woke up. Analysis of the samples revealed that the students who interacted directly with the pets showed significantly less cortisol in their saliva afterward. 

The calming effect was found to be consistent regardless of whether the students started out the day with very high or low levels of the stress hormone.

“We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions,” said Professor Pendry. “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.”

The study is published in the journal AERA Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/archimede

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