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Sep 21 2016
by Terry Nguyen

Behind the Psychology of College Pet Therapy

By Terry Nguyen - Sep 21 2016

It’s September, and now that the winds of summer have finally swept into our past, the early weeks of college are a reminder that school can bring more than a few gray hairs. Although student stress levels have yet to skyrocket so early into the new school year, the slow yet steady approach of midterms foreshadow the gradual deterioration of student health until dreaded finals week.

In recent years, pet therapy has become increasingly popular as a campus health service, as students are calling for innovative ways to focus on mental health. Many campuses have extended their health programs in the hopes of combating mental illnesses with the help of some furry friends. But seriously, who doesn’t like having furry friends on campus? Pet therapy has long been used to treat individuals who suffer from a wide variety of mental illnesses, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression to anxiety. With the recent implementation of these programs into college campuses, health scientists are hopeful that pet interactions will provide promising results.

Gus Ruelas

According to the JED Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting mental health and preventing suicide among college students, individuals between 18 and 24 are especially prone to develop mental illnesses. Many students, however, do not seek the help they need or are lacking the necessary resources to treat these illnesses. Some even admit to being too embarrassed to seek critical professional attention. Therefore, pet therapy has been proven to be a guaranteed way to attract a large percentage of the (pet-loving) student body to pay more attention to mental health, an issue that goes largely unnoticed by many college communities. After all, no human being with a heart can say no to a room full of pets!

With the popularity of Internet cat and dog videos on Facebook, pet therapy, truthfully, sounds too good to be true — too good that many might even call it a placebo effect. Nevertheless, there are major benefits to spending even a couple minutes with a pet during stressful times. A 2012 study on the effects of human-animal interaction suggests that simply petting any live animal revealed a significant reduction in fear, anxiety and depression. The study used a variety of animals, and even turtles (yes, turtles) were proven to alleviate anxiety symptoms. Although many pet programs generally bring therapy dogs, stroking a turtle’s smooth shell serves as an equally effective form of mental health healing!

After reading this article, pet owners probably should hide their dogs, cats, and turtles from touchy college students, but have no fear — many organizations are seeking to promote pet therapy to universities nationwide. The University of Connecticut is one of the many progressive schools who have integrated pets into its health center. The school hosts a biweekly session in its Relaxation Station where students will have the chance to interact with therapy dogs. Other universities, such as the University of Oregon and the University of Southern California also offer similar services, but only during the stress seasons of midterms and finals. Some students at Harvard Medical School are lucky enough to even check out a therapy dog from their library! 

Flickr Creative Commons

Most of us, however, are not as fortunate to have these pet luxuries on campus. But, do not despair just yet! Pet therapy is a relatively new health counseling service, and as a college student, you can form your own initiative to integrate pet programs to campus.

The best thing about pet therapy is that it not only targets students with health issues, it is easy for any individual, even college professors and administrators, to interact with animals. An atmosphere with several happy dogs can easily rift together any differences between students and professors, and often times, mental health healing occurs naturally and progressively in this environment. So remember, when times get hard, our furry friends are here to offer a helpful paw!

Lead Image Credit: Terry Nguyen

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Terry Nguyen - University of Southern California

Terry is a freshman at the University of Southern California, pursuing a major in journalism and political science. Besides writing, she enjoys photography, graphic design, multimedia storytelling, and maintaining an irrational sense of aesthetic in her dorm room. Follow her on Twitter for sarcastic tweets and fun @terryngyn

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