Unsurprisingly, college and its encompassing responsibilities cause high-stress levels in students. One way that nearly 1,000 U.S. college campuses try to alleviate the daily stressors of college life is by providing animal visitation programs (AVP). Whether a formal program through a nearby shelter or a professor bringing their dog to lecture, AVPs intend to provide some level of stress relief for overwhelmed students. Most programs allow for 5 to 45 minutes of animal interaction. About 85% of the programs feature dogs, 5% feature cats and dogs, and 10% use dogs, cats, and other animals such as rabbits, baby goats, alpacas, and more. Prior studies have shown that, if given a chance, students will spend an average of 35 minutes engaging with the program animals.
Scientists at Washington State University aimed to determine the effectiveness of one such animal visitation program by determining if, at all, a 10-minute animal visitation program reduced college student’s salivary cortisol levels. Salivary cortisol is a marker of one of the body’s most sensitive stress systems—the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Animal visitations are indeed mood-boosting, but is there a measurable physiological response?
The research team utilized an existing campus program in collaboration with university administrators. The AVP featured cats and dogs from the humane society. Study participants were randomly assigned one of four conditions: hands-on AVP for 10 minutes (petting cats and dogs), AVOP (watching others pet animals), AVP slideshow (viewing images of the same animals), or AVOP waitlist. The waitlisted group could use their phone, read, or otherwise for 10 minutes while waiting for their turn at the animal interaction.
Salivary cortisol was collected 15 and 25 minutes after the participant’s AVP condition was completed. Also, salivary cortisol was obtained from participants in the morning when they woke up. Results showed that students in the hands-on condition—petting cats and dogs—had the lower posttest cortisol levels, compared to the other three conditions. So, in addition to generally boosting students’ moods, there is a measurable stress-relieving physiological reaction to petting cats and dogs for 10 minutes.
Associate Professor and researcher Patricia Pendry told WSU reporters, “what we wanted to learn was whether this exposure would help students reduce their stress in a less objective way. And it did, which is exciting because the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health.”