petting cats and dogs reduces cortisol stress levels

Petting Cats or Dogs Reduces Stress Hormones in College Students Interview with:

Patricia Pendry Ph.D. Associate Professor of Human Development Graduate Faculty in Prevention Science Washington State University CAHNRS Pullman, WA 99164

Dr. Pendry

Patricia Pendry Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Human Development
Graduate Faculty in Prevention Science
Washington State University CAHNRS
Pullman, WA 99164 What is the background for this study?

Response: Over the last decade, university students have reported increasingly high levels of academic stress, depressive symptomology, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. This is a serious problem as students who report these symptoms tend to have lower GPAs and are more likely to drop out of college. Since academic stress is considered an inevitable part of college life, it is important that we identify effective academic stress management programs. One stress management approach that has been enthusiastically received by University administrators and students is the use of campus-based Animal Visitation Programs (AVPs). Established in nearly 1,000 U.S. college campuses to date, most AVPs provide the general student population the opportunity to engage in 5-30 minutes of petting of animals in small-group settings. While students much enjoy these types of programs, relatively little sound scientific evidence is known about the efficacy of such programs to actually reduce stress.

We thus embarked on a study that experimentally teased out the effects of hands-on interaction from the effects of waiting in line while watching others engage in hands-on interactions, sitting quietly without social media or other stimuli, or watching pictures of the same animals on students’ level of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone that has been linked to various physical and mental health outcomes. What are the main findings?

petting cats and dogs reduces cortisol stress levelsResponse: We found that petting cats and dogs for merely 10 minutes significantly lowered cortisol levels of college students. This is exciting because high levels of cortisol – a stress hormone – are thought to play a role in the development of mental health issues, motivation and learning. Our results thus show that college-based Animal Visitation Programs  may provide effective stress relief. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Hands-on interaction with dogs and cats can get ‘under the skin’ in a good way and can serve as an enjoyable and effective way to momentarily reduce the level of stress hormones present in the body. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: We are currently analyzing data from a following up study funded by MARS/WALTHAM called the PETPALS project.This is a randomized controlled trial that examines the effects of a 4-week long program on college-based, animal-assisted stress prevention programs on human and animal participants. The main goal of this study is to examine effects of various levels of HAI (Human Animal Interaction) on college students’ executive functioning, motivation and learning, mental health symptomatology (anxiety, perceived stress, depression, and worry) and stress-related physiology. We compare exposure to HAI to evidence-based stress prevention programs to see if the effects of HAI exceed those of existing established stress prevention approaches. Another goal is to better understand the effects of participation in HAI programming on stress behavior of emotional support animals, and the role played by the quality of HAI on human and animal outcomes. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: I think it is important that we carefully consider if and how we implement AVPs programs rather than ‘blindly’ scaling them up based on this research. While our study worked closely with the local human society that did a great job in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the animals, as researchers, we also carefully monitored the behavior of the animals for signs of stress. In the absence of having the staff and expertise to do so consistently, I personally recommend that universities work with affiliates of a national organization called PETPARTNERS who evaluate and register dogs and their handlers to ensure that only handler-dog teams suitable for this type of work participate. Doing so will ensure the safety and wellbeing of students as well as animals.


Patricia Pendry, Jaymie L. Vandagriff. Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. AERA Open, 2019; 5 (2): 233285841985259 DOI: 10.1177/2332858419852592 

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Jul 26, 2019 @ 12:50 am

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