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The research behind therapy animals

A Mills student relieves stress while petting therapy dogs at the library.
A Mills student relieves stress while petting therapy dogs at the library.

During stressful times of the semester, Mills College and many other universities will bring therapy dogs on campus for students to visit with.

Therapy animals are known to relieve stress and anxiety by releasing oxytocin, but there are also physical health benefits that come from spending time with an animal. According to Longevity Live, “Today, animal therapy is a globally recognized and reputable method for aiding a variety of health conditions such as depression, anxiety or even ailments such as cancer.”

While the effect that therapy animals have on people’s health is disputed and not thoroughly researched, many researchers still argue that therapy animals provide health benefits to people. According to the Washington Post, much of the research in the field used small sample sizes and didn’t control for other possible reasons for a changed stress level.

According to the Washington Post, James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, says that practitioners who have seen their patient’s mental health improve while working with animals support the continued research on therapy animals.

It’s a field that has been sort of carried forward by the convictions of practitioners,” Serpell said, as reported by the Washington Post.

According to a study on animal assisted therapy at UCLA, “the simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response.” Therapy dogs are often brought to college campuses to help relieve student stress.

Therapy animals are not only good for relieving stress, however, and can offer a number of other mental and physical health benefits. According to UCLA Health, therapy animals also “assist in recall of memories and help sequence temporal events in patients with head injuries or chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.” Along with mental health benefits, animals can help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.

Although the effects that therapy animals have on people’s mental health still needs more research, the use of animals to help mental health is not new. According to the Washington Post, “in the 17th century, a Quaker-run retreat in England encouraged mentally ill patients to interact with animals on its grounds.”

Even though the claims that therapy animals bring countless mental and physical health benefits to people still need more data to back them up, many students report that therapy dogs do provide a short-term stress relief and general feeling of happiness.