Furry Friends Can Help Ease Finals Stress

by Marissa Donovan

This time of year is hectic, the end of the semester is near, but the workload to get there seems daunting. Consider turning to animals to fight your finals-induced stress with
Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and Tufts Paws for People.

Nearly 1 in 6 college students were diagnosed or treated for anxiety last year, according to the 2014 National College Health Assessment survey by the American College Health Association. Anxiety has now become the number one mental health issue among college students today, and academic distress seems to be a major contributor.

More than 100,000 students across 140 colleges and universities sought mental health services during the past year, reports Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health.  And it’s no surprise that anxiety was found to negatively affect school performance among students. Though the pressures of school, work, and life in general don’t seem to be availing anytime soon, the resources to deal with these pressures are plentiful.

Lifestyle changes, physical activity, and a healthy diet can all help to combat feelings of stress and anxiety. A more unconventional method is playing with pets. That’s right, there’s a reason you’ve heard of therapy dogs and puppy play sessions on the quad—animals can mitigate stress.

Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, J86, V91, N96 explains that human interactions with animals can provide benefits in physical health, mental health, and social interactions. Freeman is the director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), which works to promote health through human-animal interaction, utilizing transdisciplinary partnerships to conduct innovative research, education, and service programs.

“Animal interactions can help reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. While these many benefits are easy to feel or see subjectively, there is not yet enough rigorous scientific evidence to understand and optimize these interactions. One of the reasons we launched TIHAI is to do this research,” said Freeman.

And evidence is starting to build showing that animals help, which is why they are used in a variety of settings, from nursing homes and hospitals to college campuses.

Often termed “pet therapy,” Freeman explains that animal visitation generally takes two forms: Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). Stress relief for college students falls under AAA and appears to provide immense benefits to students. Though interacting with animals may seem straightforward at first, it is important to ensure that these exchanges are safe and beneficial for both the people and the animals. Dogs and cats are typically the most popular pets of focus, but studies have shown that even pet fish can have benefits. The type of animal and the amount of interaction needed for benefits are not yet fully understood, though Freeman explains that it’s important to remember the therapy animals’ health and welfare. During busy stress relief events, they limit each dog to one-hour shifts, because, while visiting with hundreds of college students is fun for them, it’s also tiring.

Tufts Paws for People—based at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and a core program within TIHAI—provides a framework for those wanting to participate in AAA or AAT. Tufts Paws for People gives education, evaluation, and mentorship surrounding how to facilitate healthy interactions with your pet and others, as well as assistance for those wanting to start animal therapy programs.

“Tufts Paws for People has nearly 100 animal-handler teams that provide more than 1,000 hours per year of animal-assisted visitation in a variety of settings across the New England region, including elder care facilities, literacy programs, schools, psychiatric centers, adult and children’s hospitals, cancer centers, hospice care, and university stress relief events,” said Freeman.

They are also partnered with Pet Partners, a national organization established to promote AAA and AAT.

In addition to Paws for People, TIHAI conducts research surrounding human-animal interaction topics including canine-assisted reading programs for children, equine-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, effect of therapy animals on children undergoing chemotherapy, and benefits of pet ownership for military-connected youth. They also provide classes for Tufts students interested in human-animal related topics, as well as webinars.

If final projects, papers, and exams are getting the best of you in the upcoming weeks, consider a less conventional, furrier option to cope. Tufts Paws for People is hosting an event for Tufts students at Tisch Library on December 10 from 4-6 pm.

If you can’t make the event and don’t have a pet of your own, Freeman says students can volunteer for a variety of animal-related activities, including with Tufts Paws for People. And, students interested further in human-animal interactions can get involved with TIHAI.

“One of the programs we offer is the TIHAI Student Scholars program, which provides funding for events, projects, and programs related to human-animal interaction in the realms of research, education, and service. Students from all three campuses are eligible,” she said. More information on the 2016 program will be available in January.

Marissa Donovan is a registered dietitian and first year student in the MS Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change program with a focus in US Food and Nutrition Policy at the Friedman school. She loves hiking, traveling, finding new restaurants and, of course, Netflix.

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