Petting cats and dogs is a pretty popular pastime for animal lovers, and now its psychological benefits have been recorded in a new study.
Aside from being just pets, cats and dogs are increasingly being used as emotional support animals, particularly for college students and those living with chronic anxiety. Now, researchers at Washington State University have revealed a study that recorded how petting these animals can actually produce stress-relieving psychological benefits.
Publishing their findings to the open access journal AERA Open, the researchers took 249 college students and divided them into four groups. The first group was tasked with hanging out with cats and dogs – including petting and playing with them – for a period of 10 minutes.
A second group was tasked with waiting in line to play with the animals and a third group watched a slideshow of the same animals. The final fourth group was asked to wait quietly in a room for 10 minutes – without phones, reading material or other stimuli – during which time the participants were told they would soon be playing with the animals.
Several salivary cortisol samples were collected from each participant, starting in the morning when they woke up. After looking through the data, the students who interacted directly with the pets showed significantly less cortisol in their saliva after the interaction. These results were noted 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,” said researcher Patricia Pendry.
“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.”
Pendry and her team are continuing this work by examining the impact of a four-week animals-assisted stress prevention programme. So far, the researchers said, preliminary results are very positive and appear to correlate with their initial findings.