Pet owners have argued for decades, if not centuries, that there are therapeutic benefits of having a pet, including that it helps them to relieve stress. Now, it seems that they were right as studies are proving that pets truly are an effective form of stress relief. One such study was conducted by a team at Washington State University. The study focused on college students, as this group of people often experience stress. Not only do they have the pressures of their academic studies, but they also have stress from work, relationships, paying bills, and sometimes moving to a new area.
According to EurekAlert, there are already some universities that have implemented programs such as ‘Pet Your Stress Away’. This allows stressed-out students to interact with cats and dogs as a way of alleviating the strain. The team from Washington State University wanted to explore the advantages of such programs further to discover whether they truly are beneficial to stressed-out students. They discovered that not only did petting the animals improve the moods of the students but that they also have stress-relieving physiological benefits.
249 students were involved in the study, and these were split randomly into four groups. Group one had ten minutes of hands-on interaction with the cats and dogs. This allowed them to hug, stroke, and play with the animals. The second group only observed other people petting animals, the third group watched a slideshow of animals being petted, and a fourth group was put on a waitlist and saw no animals being petted. The fourth group was told that they would see the animals soon but were left to read and use their phones without ever meeting the animals. These different cohorts allowed scientists to make comparisons between the groups.
Scientists collected saliva samples from the groups to measure cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is released during stress. They began collecting the samples in the morning prior to the experiment beginning, and then at intervals throughout the day until after the study had taken place. Patricia Pendry is an associate professor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University. She has said that spending even ten minutes with the pets can have significant benefits. Scientists found that those who had interracted with the cats and dogs had significantly lower levels of cortisol after petting the animals. This even applied to students who already had low levels of cortisol prior to spending time with the pets.
Along with Jaymie Vandagriff, a WSU graduate student, Pendry published the findings of the study in an open-access journal by the American Educational Research Association called AERA Open. The study was the first of its kind in the sense that it used a real-life intervention setting rather than a laboratory setting to prove that cortisol levels were reduced after spending time with animals. Pendry says that they already knew that interacting with animals is an enjoyable experience for students that evokes positive emotions. The purpose of the study was to prove that animal interaction can reduce the production of stress hormones, which can have positive effects on both physical and mental health over time.
This study is not finished as Pendry and the team of scientists is continuing their work by looking at results over a longer period, such as studying the impact of animal-assisted stress prevention program lasting for four weeks. They then intend to publish a follow-up study in which they hope the results will prove their initial findings. This is not the only study of the stress-relieving benefits of spending time with animals. Animal Smart highlights many more studies on this topic. One of the studies they highlight is an Italian study that took place in 2008. The researchers introduced shelter dogs to patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and the findings showed that the dogs helped to reduce the patients’ stress levels as well as having other benefits.
While it is now proven that animals can help humans to increase their levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, there are also further physical benefits that studies have proved. In 2001, scientists discovered that patients who suffered from high blood pressure could keep their blood pressure lower at times of stress than those who did not have a pet. Another study showed that those who had suffered a heart attack survived for longer after having the heart attack if they owned a pet.
Of course, there are further benefits to pet ownership that can impact on both mental and physical well-being, says Very Well Mind. In terms of mental health, dogs and cats can make fantastic companions that can relieve loneliness. Dogs can also encourage you to get out of the house and speak to other people. Therefore, they can act as a form of social support. Furthermore, pets can give their owners a sense of purpose in life.
In relation to physical health, owning a dog gives you a reason to get out of the house and take some exercise. Going for regular walks can help you to maintain a healthy weight and to reduce the likelihood of you suffering from serious conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Overall, there are many benefits to spending time with animals for a person’s mental and physical well-being. Studies have proven that animal petting is an effective way to relieve stress, and this knowledge means that people can now look at ways they can include animals in their life as a form of stress relief. While not everyone can own a pet, there are other ways that they can access animals that can benefit both the humans and the pets. One possible way to relieve stress in a manner that also benefits the animals is to volunteer at an animal shelter and spend some time offering affection to animals in need.