Helen McArdle: Proof at last – cats and dogs are good for you

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SEEKING an antidote to the stress and anxiety of Bojo’s Brexit Britain?

In the face of what might seem like the impending doom of a Thelma and Louise-style exit from the European Union, the temptation to turn to wine, chocolate or simply despair is strong for many of us.

Thankfully, scientists in the US have offered up a simple technique to lowering your cortisol level: playing with cats and dogs.

Any cat owner struggling to get an unruly moggy into their box for a trip to the vet or retrieving a kitten from the top of a curtain pole might associate the experience with rocketing blood pressure, but research tells a different story.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from people who praise their canine and feline companions as a source of comfort, amusement and relaxation. But the recently published findings of a study carried out at Washington State University show clear evidence of the mental health benefit to humans of pets.

The randomised trial gauged 249 undergraduate students as they were split into four categories: petting cats and dogs; looking at a slideshow of images of cats and dogs; watching other people pet animals; or being sat in a waiting room without animals where they were banned from using phones, reading or talking to one another – but on the upside, they were given pizza vouchers.

The study, published in the American Educational Research Association, was set up to respond to evidence that levels of stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts have increased among young people at university, and that these individuals are more likely to get poorer grades or drop out.

The researchers measured the participants’ cortisol – the stress hormone. Saliva samples were collected each morning after the students woke up and again to reflect pre- and post-test cortisol in the different categories.

The scientists controlled for factors which might influence cortisol such as sleeping patterns, exercise, caffeine and alcohol intake. They also graded each student on their existing levels of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.

The results showed that those who had hands-on interactions with cats or dogs experienced by far the steepest and longest sustained drop in their cortisol, indicating “momentary stress relief” had indeed occurred.

Unfortunately, for those seeking a scientific answer to the thorny question, ‘which is better, cats or dogs?’, the study draws a blank. Interactions with dogs and cats were counted as one category, although participants were actually allocated one or the other.

The second-best results were achieved in the ‘waiting room’ group – surely proof of the benefits of free pizza.

So with turbulent times ahead, perhaps the Government should provide all citizens with a cat, a dog – or pizza?

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