“Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact,” Patricia Pendry, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development, said in a Monday university press release. “Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.”
In the study, which was published last month in the AERA Open journal, 249 participants were randomly assigned to either pet and play with cats and dogs, watch others interact with the animals while they waited in line for their turn to pet the animals, view images of the same animals or simply be waitlisted in a room.
According to the study, the waitlist condition was added to “examine effects of waiting quietly for 10 minutes without exposure to common program stimuli.”
“Participants were led to a waiting room and asked to store cell phones and reading materials and instructed to refrain from verbal interaction with others,” the study notes, adding that the students in this group were told they would be able to interact with animals soon.
Study participants provided salivary cortisol samples when first waking up in the morning and two samples 15 and 25 minutes after the “10-minute conditon,” to determine cortisol levels before and after their specific conditioning took place.
The findings revealed that the students who were assigned 10 minutes of hands-on interaction with the cats and dogs had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to other participants, and those in the observation group had the second lowest levels. Cortisol levels in the slideshow and waitlist groups were equivalent.
“We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions,” 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.”
However, the study is not without limitations due to the number and gender of students who participated. In addition, the study did not take into account “small-group interactions with canines versus individual interactions with felines.”
“Although the sample included students from 37 majors across all class standings, the sample was dominated by female underclassmen who chose to participate in the program, suggesting selection may play a role,” the study explains.
“Future work should aim to distinguish these facets of the program experience to understand the extent to which interacting with animals, as well as other humans in the program, informs program results,” the study concludes.