In what can be an intense and stressful environment, having therapy animals available for well-being sessions can provide a much-needed breakAutri Taheri/UNSPLASH

After a stressful week of work, I can’t think of much better than spending even just 10 minutes with a dog, cat, rabbit or any other cute pet. When introduced to such a friendly face, it seems relatively easy to find yourself relaxing and forgetting about a stressful few days of work. The recent sad news about Darwin Kershenbaum, the Girton therapy dog who had been serving the college since 2018, highlighted how strong the affection we feel for them is. But what exactly is it that leads humans to form these loving relationships with animals in the first place? And what benefits do we really get from them?

The relationship between humans and animals, known as the human-animal bond, is a mutually beneficial, dynamic relationship that is influenced by many emotional, physical and psychological interactions. This bond has been evolving for over 15,000 years, initially as a working relationship before the domestication of animals led us to see them also as companions.

The production of the hormone oxytocin, more commonly referred to as the love hormone, is a main contributor to this companionship. Oxytocin increases the levels of affection we feel for animals and its production in animals also increases the affection of pets for humans when we interact with them. Although the effects of this are greatly enhanced by spending lots of time with a pet, a single meeting is enough to see a measurable increase in Oxytocin.

Ward-Griffin et al (2018) confirmed the benefits of single meetings with animals by holding therapy dog sessions with university students. They saw significant reductions in stress levels and increases in happiness immediately afterwards, but also saw that these effects diminished after several hours post-session. Regular animal meet-ups are therefore the most sustainable way to improve happiness and decrease stress, but it can’t be denied that even single sessions hold a significant impact.

Multiple studies have also shown that interactions with animals cause almost immediate reductions in the physiological symptoms of stress, not just the perceived emotional effects. A study by Wood et al (2017) showed that interactions with therapy dogs resulted in a significant reduction in blood pressure, a physiological marker for stress, after only 15 minutes with the dogs, alongside the students reporting a reduction in anxiety. A second study by Pendry and Vandagriff (2019) also showed a marked reduction in stress. They demonstrated this through showing that students had decreased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, after only ten minutes of interaction with cats or dogs from a local animal shelter.

Spending time with animals has also been shown to help those struggling with loneliness, which could show huge benefits in university students that struggle with isolation or live far away from home. A study by Ratschen et al (2020) concluded that spending large amounts of time with animals throughout the Covid-19 lockdown mitigated some of the detrimental psychological effects experienced by many during this difficult time.


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The same study also concluded that the animal-human bond did not differ significantly between animal species, reminding us that not only dogs can be useful therapy animals. Lucy Cavendish has previously given residence to therapy Guinea pigs to reduce exam stress, which is probably a more unconventional approach but popular nonetheless!

Even if your college is not one of those with a permanent therapy animal, many societies hold animal related events. One of those societies is Student Minds Cambridge, a mental health charity aimed at and run by Cambridge students, which holds multiple dog therapy sessions throughout the year, recognising the major benefits that animals can have on mental health.

In what can be an intense and stressful environment, having therapy animals available for well-being sessions can provide a much-needed break and stress release for busy students. There are many events run by colleges and societies throughout the year that allow students to do this, but the long-term effects of having a therapy animal available year-round could see huge benefits to student well-being. So, if your college or society has a fluffy friend for when you’re feeling down, I definitely recommend giving them a visit.