If you know a college student or are one yourself, you might be familiar with the programs that allow students to pet dogs or cats for a few hours, usually during finals season. The hope is that spending a little time with a cuddly creature will take students’ minds off their exams and lower their stress levels. The rising popularity of emotional support animals would seem to uphold that idea, but there hasn’t been much data on the petting sessions' effectiveness—until now.
In a study recently published in the journal AERA Open, Patricia Pendry and Jaymie Vandagriff of Washington State University found that students who pet the animals in one of these animal visitation programs had lower salivary cortisol levels than those who didn’t. (Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone.)
In their experiment, the researchers split 249 college students into four groups. The first group played with shelter cats and dogs for 10 minutes. The second group stood in line watching the first group hang out with the animals but never got to do it themselves. The third group was shown images of the animals; and the fourth group was told they were on a waitlist to see the animals, but never actually saw them. Each of the students submitted three saliva samples—one when they woke up, one 15 minutes after the 10-minute experiment, and a third 25 minutes after the experiment.
The researchers found that the group of students who got to pet the animals had noticeably lower cortisol levels than the other groups, after controlling for other variables like what their cortisol level had been that morning, how long they had been awake, or differences in their circadian rhythms.
Since it’s only one study with a relatively small sample size of students from one university, it’s not enough to suggest that every anxiety-ridden student can be helped by petting a pup. But it complements other well-documented benefits of owning a dog or cat, and might be a good thing to try whenever you’re feeling a little stressed.
[h/t Science Alert]