Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
Anyone who shares their home with a beloved pet of any kind will tell you: pets reduce stress. OK, so sometimes they cause stress too (especially when they wander off for days at a time, like one of my four cats insists on doing….or when they throw bits of apple at your head when you’re working, like my parrot does) – but by and large pet owners the world over will agree that pets are great for stress-busting.
Much of the research done into pets and stress relief has been focused on mental health and the psychological benefits of having a pet or spending time with a friendly animal. The known psychological benefits are well documented but less is known about our physiological response to our furry, scaled or feathered friends.
When we’re stressed, the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone – which impairs our body’s ability to heal itself, increasing stress and leading to a vicious and yes, increasingly stressful circle. Not sleeping, stomach upsets, aches and pains, weight gain and headaches can all be signs that your body’s releasing way too much cortisol. But- good news. Research done recently at Washington State University has discovered that just ten minutes of interacting with cats and dogs was enough to produce a significant reduction in students’ cortisol levels – a genuine physiological response with known health benefits.
This is not the first research to look at pets and companion animals in student life, but it is the first to have studied such interaction in real life scenarios, as opposed to artificial lab conditions.
During this randomized controlled trial, volunteer students were randomly assigned to one of four groups: a group which spent 10 minutes interacting freely interacting with therapy dogs and cats, a group which observed the first group but did not have hands-on interaction themselves, a group which was shown still images of the therapy animals and a group which sat quietly without stimulation, and were told they would soon be interacting with the animals. Saliva samples were taken from each participant, aiming to measure a baseline cortisol level, as well as levels directly before the trial and directly afterwards.
The results showed significantly lower cortisol levels in the group which had enjoyed hands-on petting; the second lowest levels were found in the group which had observed the petting session.
With students reporting increasing levels of stress and mental health issues, this is a potentially significant physiological finding. There are already nearly 1000 pet/animal visitation programs operating in colleges and universities across the US, but this study shows that there are real physical benefits for students as well as psychological ones. Additionally, the study has implications for the design of future pet visitation programs, perhaps involving waiting areas where those waiting their turn can observe the animals before they get their own chance for cuddles and petting.
Recent research has also shown that growing up around animals can help to reduce a child’s risk of developing allergies, that therapy dogs can help people to come with the after-effects of traumatic events and that animal visitation can benefit critically ill patients requiring ICU care. It is vital that we remain conscious of ethical and welfare standards in animal therapy programs – these beautiful sentient creatures are not ours to use at will – but properly done it seems clearer than ever that pets and animal therapies have a huge range of benefits for all.
For animal lovers, of course, this is all pretty obvious. Snuggling with your cat or playing with your pooch self-evidently makes you feel better – we know this in our gut. But the more scientific evidence catches up with what we already instinctively know, the more people who don’t have their own pets or who are institutionalized will be able to benefit from the blessings that animals can bring us.
About the author:
Nikki Harper is a spiritualist writer, astrologer, and current editor for Wake Up World.