Study: Animal Visitation Programs Reduce Stress Levels in Students

A 10-minute college-based animal visitation program providing hands-on petting of cats and dogs provides momentary stress relief, according to a study published this week in the AERA Open, an open access journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Pendry Vandagriff demonstrated that petting animals during a 10-minute, college-based animal visitation program featuring shelter cats and dogs lowered cortisol levels of students compared to those who merely observed, watched still images of the same animals, and waited without external stimuli. Image credit: Conger Design.

Pendry Vandagriff demonstrated that petting animals during a 10-minute, college-based animal visitation program featuring shelter cats and dogs lowered cortisol levels of students compared to those who merely observed, watched still images of the same animals, and waited without external stimuli. Image credit: Conger Design.

“Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact,” said co-author Dr. Patricia Pendry, a researcher in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University.

“Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.”

The study involved 249 college students randomly divided into four groups.

The first group received hands-on interaction in small groups with cats and dogs for 10 minutes. They could pet, play with, and generally hang out with the animals as they wanted.

To compare effects of different exposures to animals, the second group observed other people petting animals while they waited in line for their turn.

The third group watched a slideshow of the same animals available during the intervention, while the fourth group was ‘waitlisted.’

Those students waited for their turn quietly for 10 minutes without their phones, reading materials, or other stimuli, but were told they would experience animal interaction soon.

Dr. Pendry and her colleague, Washington State University graduate student Jaymie Vandagriff, collected several samples of salivary cortisol from each participant, starting in the morning when the students woke up.

Once all the data was crunched from the various samples, the students who interacted directly with the pets showed significantly less cortisol in their saliva after the interaction.

These results were found even while considering that some students may have had very high or low levels to begin with.

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

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Patricia Pendry Jaymie L. Vandagriff. 2019. Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. AERA Open 5 (2); doi: 10.1177/2332858419852592

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