If you’ve ever come home from a hellish day to greet a four-legged furball, you know that petting your dog can dramatically decrease your stress levels. But petting dogs you’ve never met before can have a similarly stress-reducing effect. Universities and colleges often have “Pet Your Stress Away” events to let students pet dogs to reduce life and finals stress, and a Washington State University (WSU) study now confirms that just 10 minutes of petting animals can lower your stress hormone levels.
A 2018 study in the journal Stress and Health concluded — based on questionnaires before and after therapy dog sessions — that these sessions have hugely beneficial impacts on students’ immediate well-being, but that the effect wore off after a few hours. This new study by Washington State University, however, was the first to study the hormonal impact of therapy dog sessions in real-life situations rather than a laboratory. Playing with, watching, or waiting to play with local shelter dogs all lowered students’ cortisol levels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group of students that actually got to play with the dogs experienced the biggest drop in cortisol levels, and the group of students that got to hear, smell, and see the dogs playing experienced the second-largest decrease in the stress hormone.
Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone that is necessary for the mobilizing the body’s response to danger. However, prolonged stress or anxiety without resolution is often accompanied by rumination and a prolonged sensation of helplessness. These experiences can increase cortisol secretions and keep your levels elevated beyond what’s necessary, such that your body’s exacerbated stress response makes you… more stressed.
Enter puppies. Interacting with fluffers in school settings can dramatically improve emotional self-regulation and the comfort and success of interactions between humans, according to a 2017 study published in AERA Open. The new WSU study authors acknowledge the commonly-held social belief that animals can decrease human stress (cat videos, anyone?), and write that this belief may have influenced declining cortisol levels in participating undergrads. However, they go on to conclude that the social acceptance that humans can feel from dogs indicates that not all of the observed effects were likely to be a placebo.
But lest anyone think that an abundance of puppies can solve the massive social phenomenon of undergraduate depression, chronic stress, and anxiety, it’s important to note that even the cutest of cats and dogs cannot solve underlying causes of stress. Scholar and disability activist Margaret Price writes extensively in her book Mad At School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life that the university system is particularly hostile to students (and faculty and staff) with mental health struggles.
“At present, services on U.S. campuses that do exist for persons with mental disabilities tend to be targeted at documentation, individual accommodations, and referral,” Price writes, “rather than at remediating hostile or inaccessible environments.” Price argues that higher education institutions create hostile environments with — for example — attendance policies that actively discourage students with depression from feeling welcome in classroom spaces and assessment policies that privilege students who are comfortable with communicating in normative ways (raising one’s hand to participate in class discussions, speaking in dominant modes of English, etc.).
And these structural barriers to classroom accessibility undoubtedly exacerbate student stress — especially for students who are already prone to mental health struggles. So it’s definitely important to be excited that science is confirming how much calmer people feel around dogs — playing with dogs is always an important reason to be excited. But first, it’s important to address the structural issues within schools and workplaces that can be hostile to self-care in the first place. But then, puppies. Always puppies.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.