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Colleges Use Pets to Decrease Stress and Anxiety in Students

Here are three colleges that use animals -- including therapy cats -- to provide relief.

Angela Lutz  |  Apr 15th 2016


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As a high-strung human who has struggled with anxiety since the inception of her own consciousness sometime in the mid-1980s, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to quiet my mind and, as my well-meaning friends suggest, “just calm down.” As anyone with anxiety knows, this is about as easy as putting out a house fire with a water gun or persuading Jimmy McGill to follow the rules on Better Call Saul.

After ineffectually experimenting with booze, pharmaceutical drugs, yoga, therapy, meditation, and Netflix binges, I’ve found one thing that takes the edge off every time: grabbing my 15-year-old gray tabby, Bubba Lee Kinsey, and burying my face in his spotted, silky soft belly. I’ve had Bubba since he was a kitten, so we know each other well. He tolerates my intrusive gestures of affection with unwavering coolness, and afterward he settles down purring on my chest so I can scratch his chin.

This is me and my other cat, Phoenix, taking a mid-afternoon cuddle break.

This is me and my other cat, Phoenix, taking a mid-afternoon cuddle break. Y’know, for my sanity.

Together, Bubba and I become impervious to the demands of the outside world. His simple, calming presence helps me forget about the mountain of research essays I have left to grade — or the three I still need to write myself. Going back to school for my master’s degree in creative writing has served as a crash course on the rigors of student life, as well as a wake-up call that I still suck at time management. A key coping strategy has been taking regular breaks to cuddle my cats — no joke.

Apparently, hugging another living being is equally beneficial for other students around the country — and many colleges are taking note. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 11 percent of college students have received a diagnosis or treatment for anxiety, and 10 percent for depression. Additionally, the American College Health Association reports that more than half of college students have experienced overwhelming anxiety that has affected their academic performance.

Hitting the books is more fun with cats. Photo by Orangeaurochs / Flickr

Hitting the books is more fun with cats. Photo by Orangeaurochs / Flickr

The good news: Therapy pets can help. Over the past few years, multiple universities and student organizations have brought cats, dogs, and (in some cases) rabbits to college campuses specifically to offer students a break from their books. Some schools take it even further by allowing students to live with companion animals in their dorms.

Here are three great examples of pet-friendly college campuses — just in time for the hectic final month of the semester to begin.

A cuddly cat is a surefire stress buster. Photo by clarissa rossarola / Flickr

A cuddly cat is a surefire stress buster. (Photo by clarissa rossarola / Flickr)

1. Washington State University Spokane

The Spokane Humane Society brought five dogs, a friendly three-legged cat, and three kittens to campus during finals week in 2014 to give students a break from studying.

“It just gets your mind off it for a while,” one student told the Spokesman-Review. “It’s nice to have a mental break.”

This cat's face alone is making me less stressed. Photo by Will Parker / Flickr

This cat’s face alone is making me less stressed. (Photo by Will Parker / Flickr)

2. Stephens College

This school in Columbia, Missouri, has welcomed pets on campus for more than 10 years, giving it the distinction of being one of the most pet-friendly colleges in the country.

“Here, we treat pets like royalty,” the college’s website says. “Come to the president’s office and pick up a doggy treat! Or reward him with a Stephens College toy from our on-campus bookstore. Think you have the cutest cat ever? Dress her up and enter our pet costume parade during Halloween!”

Additionally, the school has teamed up with a local no-kill shelter to allow students to foster pets and prepare the cuddly critters for their forever homes — an opportunity that just might come with a scholarship.

Nothing like a cat to remind you to take a nap once in a while. Photo by Ladislav Benes / Flickr

Nothing like a cat to remind you to take a nap once in a while. (Photo by Ladislav Benes / Flickr)

3. The University of Minnesota

The Pet Away Worry and Stress (PAWS) program at the university offers weekly pet therapy sessions featuring cats, dogs, rabbits, and even a chicken.

“The goal of the program is to be a stress-reducing outlet for the university community,” the website says. “Animal interactions have been demonstrated to positively affect blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormone levels in humans.”

Seriously, though — if I couldn’t cuddle with one of my cats, I think Woodstock the therapy chicken might be the next best thing. Have you ever seen anything so impossibly fluffy? He looks straight out the mind of Dr. Seuss.

Who wouldn't feel better after hanging with this fellow?

Meet Woodstock the therapy chicken. Who wouldn’t feel better after hanging with this fuzzy fellow?

Naturally, kicking it with a kitty isn’t a cure-all for depression or anxiety — but it sure can help. Know a recent college grad? Check out this list of 20 colleges that allow pets on campus — and then get your face in some belly floof ASAP.