The most stressful time of the year for students often arrives with midterms and finals. The hours spent sitting in class, studying, doing homework, keeping up with a social life and possibly working a job can be a lot to juggle. College student mental health statistics reflect this. What if something as simple as petting an animal could help reduce those weights? 

Anxiety and depression are becoming the top concerns among college students, at 48.2 percent and 34.5 percent, respectively, according to The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey of 2017The percentage of students who have seriously considered suicide has risen almost 10 percent over the course of a decade, from 23.8 percent in 2011 to 33.2 percent in 2016, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s (CCMH) 2016 Annual Report.

With those increasing rates, a greater number of students seek help through their universities, and many colleges have increased their resources in order to meet those demands, according to CCMH. However, not every student has the time or the desire to sit down with a counselor. As a result, universities have also begun reaching out to students using a different tool: dogs. 

Research shows interacting with cats or dogs has positive effects on mental health in terms of stress, anxiety and depression. People who interact with dogs experience lower blood pressure, improved mood and a decrease in self-reported stress, according to a study by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

“There’s a lot of benefits that derive from having an animal … from emotional and social support and comfort to decreases in blood pressure and heart rate,” San Luis Obispo County Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson said.

Access to animals is not always readily available for college students, especially given strict university housing rules and no-pet policies with off-campus housing. Though these obstacles make it harder for students to have pets, there are local programs that help build the bridge from student to animal.

Take5 is a committee at Robert E. Kennedy Library focusing on helping students de-stress with creative activities like watercolor painting and crafting, as well as through visits from therapy dogs. The Dogs at the Library event, which happens every month, allows students to take a break through human-to-dog contact. 

“I asked students, ‘What’s your perceived stress level before you pet the dogs versus after you pet the dogs?’ and it goes down by almost four points,” Take5 Committee Chair Conny Liegl said.

Liegl also said almost 92 percent of students who spend time with the dogs believe the program contributes to their academic success.

“Our main goal is really to give students a five-minute break,” Liegl said. “Anything that gets your mind out of this focus headspace for a second [helps], and then you can come back and concentrate.”

The cats in the Woods’ cattery are friendly and eager for attention from everyone who walks by. This feline reaches out for some love. Serena Lopez | Mustang News

For students who want more frequent exposure to animals, Woods Humane Society allows anyone interested to spend time with animals up for adoption. There is no cost or commitment to showing up.

“It’s nice for them and it’s nice for the students, since you guys don’t have your pets from home,” Foster and Rescue Coordinator at Woods Humane Society Chantalle Little said.  

Visitors are free to pet the animals whenever they walk in. Spending time in the cattery requires no assistance, but an employee must be notified when it is a visitor’s first time visiting the dogs. Woods also encourages students to schedule shifts to walk the dogs, which requires special training.

“You just give them some love and you see their life is enriched from you being a part of it,” Little said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

For students who want to take home a furry friend, Woods has adoptions daily, in addition to a foster program. The foster program places animals who are not ready to be adopted — kittens and puppies not ready to be on their own, adult animals with illnesses, animals preparing for a surgery or animals who need a calmer environment — in temporary homes. 

Fostering animals can be a good option for college students because there is no long-term commitment to the animal. Once the animal is ready to be adopted, they are returned to the shelter and put up for adoption to find a permanent home.

Despite being away from family pets and living with strict no-pet policies, there’s always an opportunity to pet the stress away with a furry friend. A quiet purr or friendly lick has more power than it seems. There’s a reason dog is a man’s best friend.

“If you’re having a bad day and you come and hang out with a pet, you’re probably going to have a better day,” Little said.

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