Using stressed college students as test subjects, researchers at Washington State University have found new evidence that petting dogs and playing with cats can be much more beneficial for the human psyche than once thought. Their findings, published in the journal AERA Open earlier this month, have concluded that public programs where pets are used as a stress reliever (like those at universities) are successful at getting people to be much calmer—in as little as 10 minutes.
"Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact," said Patricia Pendry, an associate professor working in WSU's Department of Human Development, in a press release. "Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone."
The study, which is the first that was conducted in a real-life situation rather than in a laboratory setting, divided nearly 250 college students into four groups. The first group was allowed to pet and play with cats and dogs in a small group for 10 minutes—but the second group was told to observe other people petting the animals while they waited in line to do so. The third group was simply shown slideshows of the same animals, while the fourth group had to wait all on their own; they were told to wait for 10 minutes without phones or any other stimuli, but were instructed that they would play with pets soon.
Researchers collected multiple salivary cortisol samples from each of the study's participants, with the first being collected in the morning after they woke up. After comparing samples among the groups and within the timeline of the day's experiments, the researchers found that the students who had the chance to play with the animals directly had significantly less cortisol in their saliva afterward. These results remained true even if the students had very high—or very low—cortisol levels to begin with, the study notes.
"We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and it helps them experience more positive emotions," Pendry said. "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." Her team is continuing their work on the topic by conducting a four-week-long animal-assisted stress prevention program while recording their findings, and researchers say that recent study results support their initial findings thus far.
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