Why Therapy Animals at Colleges Offer More Than Just a Furry Friend

Macmillan Employee
Macmillan Employee
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Even if just a furry friend sounds good enough.



It’s nearing finals week, and the end-of-semester stress is starting to build up. Short on time, it may seem like there isn't any opportunity to rest and prioritize your mental health.

However, did you know that there is one activity that is scientifically proven to decrease stress levels and improve your mood within just a few minutes?

Animal visitation programs (AVPs) are being implemented at a rising number of college campuses across the United States. These most commonly take the form of therapy dog sessions, where students can pet and play with dogs specially trained for the task.

How do Therapy Dogs Affect Mood and Stress?

Plenty of dog-lovers would say that playing with their dog makes them happier. This applies to therapy dog programs too! In a therapy dog session, students are invited to interact with the canines in small groups.

Studies have shown that students self-report an immediate increase in happiness and energy levels after taking part in therapy dog sessions. Students also report a perceived decrease in mental stress even 10 hours after their therapy dog session.

Why do These Mood Changes Occur?

These mood changes are not just a mental perception; they are related to changes in hormone levels that occur when interacting with animals. An increase in oxytocin levels, which is shown to occur within many people when they pet or play with dogs, helps with decreasing stress.

Studies show that AVPs can lead to a significant decrease in cortisol levels in just 10 minutes. Cortisol is directly tied to the main stress pathway in the human body, called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When someone is stressed, the HPA axis increases activity, and secretes greater amounts of cortisol. Therefore, a decrease in cortisol means there has been a physiological decrease in stress.

How Can This Help?

Stress has many effects, both physically and mentally. It can affect your sleep, your ability to focus, your appetite, and your mood.

College can be an extremely stressful time for many. Stress and academic performance are often a negative feedback loop; when you experience academic stress, it can sometimes lead to performing more poorly, which in turn can lead to a greater increase in mental stress. Therefore, as a college student it is incredibly important to monitor your stress levels closely and take care of your mental health.

Check and see if your own college offers therapy dog sessions! Just a few short minutes can make a huge difference for your mental and physical health.

Gretchen Maune
University of Virginia

Gretchen Maune is currently a Junior at the University of Virginia. She is double majoring in Biology and English, with a concentration in ‘Science Literature and Global Bioethics’. She is looking forward to a career in the journalism industry, specifically dealing with science writing and creative nonfiction. Gretchen was a summer Editorial Intern for Macmillan Learning’s Life Sciences division.

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