You don’t need expensive massages and unhealthy vices to unwind from the stresses and strains of modern life; all you need is dogs.
Just 10 minutes of petting cats and dogs can result in a dramatic reduction in stress hormone levels, according to new research published in the journal AERA Open.
In what sounds like one hell of a zen lead up to finals, psychologists from Washington State University (WSU) gathered 249 college students, just a week before their final year exams and randomly divided them into four groups.
The first group could pet and play with a number of cats and dogs for 10 minutes, while a second group observed other people petting animals. A third group (who apparently drew the short straw) watched a 10-minute slide presentation containing pictures of the animals, and the fourth group sat without any stimulus but were told they would be able to pet the animals in 10 minutes time. Before and after their sessions, all participants had their saliva tested for levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the group that experienced 10 minutes of petting fluffy friends had a significantly bigger drop in cortisol than every other group. All of the other three groups experienced a drop in cortisol levels too, however, the decrease was notably less.
“We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions,” Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU's Department of Human Development and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
“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.”
It isn't clear how pets affect a person's mental state or well-being in the longterm. While some research has shown that pets do increase some aspects of health, other studies have suggested that pet owners have more mental health problems than non-pet owners.
The research also didn’t specifically look to find an underlying explanation for the short-term buzz we get from petting animals, however, previous research has helped to explain how pets provide social and emotional support for many people. In respect to this, one explanation could be close physical contact, a key feature of the petting sessions, is perceived as an expression of social support, which helps to reduce the body’s stress response.
“Many individuals perceive that their pets provide emotional support, perhaps more readily than fellow humans,” the study reads.
Whatever the reason for our affiliation with non-human species, it’s certainly nothing new. One of the oldest archaeological finds of a dog dates back to 14,200 years ago. It appears its owners were particularly fond, or at least respectful, of this dog since it was actually found buried next to two human skeletons.