More evidence that pets benefit mental health

 Dog and owner

More evidence that pets benefit mental health

New research examines how interacting with pets affects cortisol levels among college students.
Pet owners have long believed that spending time with their animal lowers stress levels and improves mood.
An extensive review by Brooks et al (2018) included testimonials from people living with mental health conditions who vouched for the emotional and psychological benefits that their pets brought them. The review concluded that the benefits are so significant that pets should be part of patient care plans.
Recently, new research has added additional scientific credibility to the results found in the review by examining the effects of pets on the physiology of college students. 
Scientists Pendry & Vandagriff recruited 249 college sudents and split them into four groups:
  • In the first group, people were free to spend time with cats and dogs for 10 minutes, stroking and playing with the animals.
  • The second group observed others interacting with the animals while they waited their turn.
  • The third group watched a slideshow of the animals.
  • The final group sat and waited in silence.
The researchers collected slaliva samples from the participants both in the morning and after the intervention and tested their cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Cortisol testing revealed that the students in the first group who had interacted with the animals had significantly lower cortisol levels after the intervention. This was the case regardless of the participants' inital cortison levels at the start of the study.
"Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone," reports study co-author Pendry. "We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions. 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."

"Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact," adds Pendry, but she and her colleagues now plan to examine the effect of a similar 4-week program, in which animals would hopefully help relieve stress. The preliminary results are promising.

This was the first study to involve college students and show reductions in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in a real life setting rather than a laboratory.



Brooks, H., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L. and Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 18(1).

Pendry, P. and Vandagriff, J. (2019). Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. AERA Open, 5(2), p.233285841985259.



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