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The Power of the "Pet Effect"

When it comes to travel, the fear of flying – or aviophobia – is number 5 on the top phobias list. While many won't go as far as identifying as an aviophobe, flying is stressful and causes anxiety for even the most seasoned travelers.

 

We've all heard the saying "you're more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash," but there’s something about soaring 35,000 feet above the earth’s surface in a 350,000-pound tube that generates more than a little anxiety.




 

Many airports are working hard to alleviate that stress with emotional support animals. During the holidays, Portland International Airport brought in therapy llamas. Travelers were invited to give snuggles and head scratches to the the 400-pound fluff balls named Beni and Prince, dressed up in festive attire with red bows and poinsettias around their necks and a pair of antlers atop their heads. 


Portland International Airport therapy llamas

 

San Francisco’s Wag Brigade is led by Alex the Great – a 28-pound Flemish rabbit and Duke Ellington Morris, the first cat on the team. Ironically, Denver’s CATS program (Canine Airport Therapy Squad) holds the record for the largest animal therapy program in America with 97 dogs and only 1 cat.


Alex the Great and Duke Ellington of the Wag Brigade


Since the mid-1980's, there has been a wealth of research comfirming the positive physiological effects of social interaction with animals. Touch, the actual act of petting the dog, is the major component of what scientists refer to as the pet effect.

 

The Pet Effect— a mysterious, yet measurable connection between us and the animals we love that has a real benefit on our physical and mental health.

 

However, even just seeing images of soft furry animals has a significant impact on us. A 2012 study showed that watching videos or viewing photos of animals can reduce stress and help us focus and concentrate. The researchers divided students into two groups and assigned each a task. One group completed a fine motor skills task (similar to the game Operation) involving removing small objects from a hole without touching the sides. A second group was tasked with finding a number in a random sequence.


Within each group, participants were shown pictures either of puppies and kittens or of grown cats and dogs. A subset of participants in one of the groups was also shown pictures of appealing foods. The participants that saw the puppies and kittens consistently performed better than the others.


As for why viewing these cute images resulted in improved performance, researchers speculate that feelings of happiness or warmth elicited by cute pictures reduce the production of stress hormones while increasing the production of oxytocin, thereby enabling the brain to focus and concentrate with greater mental acuity.


A 2019 study revealed that petting dogs and cats reduced stress and anxiety in college students. The study involved 249 college students randomly divided into four groups. The first group received hands‑on interaction in small groups with cats and dogs for 10 minutes. They could pet, play with, and generally hang out with the animals as they wanted.


The second group observed other people petting animals while they waited in line for their turn. The third group watched a slideshow of the same animals available during the intervention, while the fourth group was “waitlisted”. Those students waited for their turn quietly for 10 minutes without their phones, reading materials, or other stimuli, but were told they would experience animal interaction soon.


After the 10 minute period, salivary samples were collected and examined for cortisol levels to be compared with several other salivary samples collected throughout the day prior to the intervention. Once all the data was collected and the numbers crunched, the students who interacted directly with the pets showed significantly less cortisol in their saliva after the interaction. These results were found even while considering that some students may have had very high or low levels to begin with.


In a 2022 study, researchers tracked levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of 105 eight- to nine-year-old children in four mainstream schools in the UK as well as 44 similarly aged children from seven special education needs schools in the UK. The children were randomly stratified into three groups: a dog group, relaxation group or control group.

 

Kids that were able to interact with dogs in the classroom twice a week reported less stress and improved focus. The effects were observed a month after the study and there was some evidence that the positive effects may even exist up to 6 months later.


Who knew? Now, you do!



 


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