Do animals help reduce stress? The llamas may not save your GPA

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With finals fast approaching and stress levels running high, some students on campus are making use of various animal “de-stress” events, such as hugging therapy dogs in Moffitt Library and petting llamas on Memorial Glade. But some researchers say evidence remains inconclusive about whether human-animal interaction, or HAI, actually reduces stress.

In her November 2016 article, “Effects of Interactions With Animals On Human Psychological Distress,a synthesis of quantitative evidence on the topic, Yale doctoral candidate Molly K. Crossman cited a “murky body of evidence on the influence of HAI on distress.” Crossman’s paper found varying results, with some studies indicating positive short-term effects, others finding no effect and some observational studies even associating the caring or attachment to a companion or service animal with higher rates of distress.

For Wendy Taylor-Tanielian, marketing manager of Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, which organizes Pet Hug Pack, a therapy animal team that travels to hospitals, schools and rehabilitation centers across Contra Costa County, the positive effects of these animals are palpable.

“Sometimes a smile is the best statistic you can get,”  Taylor-Tanielian said. “We leave the science up to the scientists and we go with our interactions.“

Pet Hug Pack, which typically visits the UC Berkeley campus the first Tuesday of every month, traveled to more than 21 high school and college campuses this semester, according to Taylor-Tanielian. They were last on campus Tuesday at Moffitt Library to provide a finals study break for students.

“I think you can actually just witness when our animals are on campus because you can hear the squeals … and you can just watch people’s faces change,” Taylor-Tanielian said. “(Students) may be going across campus with a stern look and their entire dispositions change.”

According to Crossman’s paper, evidence seems to suggest that HAI may have “small-to-medium” effects on distress. But it’s not clear whether it’s really the animals themselves that account for these effects.

Daniel Shepard, a campus senior and business health administration major, called the Pet Hug Pack events “silly,” adding that his recent interaction with the animals had “zero” effect on his stress.

“The only positive effect is that it did give me something to giggle about afterward,”  Shepard said. “The bottom line is that I think there’s too much attention on animals. People are paying attention to the animals to the point that they’re ignoring humans.”

Larkin Bond, a junior transfer and sociology major, called her three dogs her “best friends” and credited them with helping her deal with the loss of her uncle and her transition to Berkeley.

“They just love me unconditionally,” Bond said. “And if I have the worst day at school they don’t care what grades I get. They love me no matter what.”

Contact Jared Brewer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @JaredBBrewer.