- Some colleges and universities are offering a chance for students to de-compress by spending some time with an animal, usually a dog.
- A new study surveyed students and found a high level of interest in having similar opportunities with a feline.
- Cat support was particularly appealing to students with the emotionality “Big Five” personality trait.
- Some experts have concerns about how cats might respond to such a role.
Higher education can be stressful for students, and some educational institutions offer relief in the form of events in which students can interact with animals. About 86% of these events offer the chance to commune with a dog. A new survey-based study finds that students are also interested in relieving stress through some quality feline time.
The study found that students who exhibit the Big Five emotionality trait are especially interested in cat visitations.
The study is published in Anthrozöös.
Dr. Patricia Pendry of Washington State University, co-author of the study, and human development professor, explained to Medical News Today:
“The idea behind the term ‘emotionality’ is that it is an indicator of the strength of people’s emotional response to a stimulus and how one reacts and behaves in response to that stimulus as a result. So, scoring high on the emotionality trait simply highlights that you are likely to react strongly to a feeling or experience.”
“While our study didn’t examine underlying mechanisms, we hypothesize that the trait of emotionality may reflect a state of mind that allows people to respond strongly — even passionately — to fairly subtle cues, which cats are known to display.”
— Dr. Patricia Pendry
As part of the study, the researchers asked 1,438 respondents at 19 Flemish schools, five of which were universities and the remainder colleges, to complete a survey. Of these respondents, 905 were students, and 533 were faculty, staff, or school employees.
Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach, professor in the School of Social Justice at the University of Toledo in Ohio, who was not involved in the new study, told MNT:
“In a pilot research study, my colleagues and I completed on Emotional Support Animals [ESAs], participants with dogs and participants with cats both experienced a statistically significant decrease in depression after living with their respective ESAs.”
However, Dr. Hoy-Gerlach pointed out that people with cats experienced a greater decrease in their depression scores.
“This new study highlights the therapeutic potential of cat companionship for human well-being. More people could be reached with related benefits if cats were more widely incorporated into animal-assisted intervention programming, with species-specific guidelines modified for the needs and welfare of cats.”
— Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach
Cats’ needs and welfare are concerns that Dr. Dennis Turner, of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Switzerland, raised to MNT:
“I must say that I am not at all in favor of a cat visitation program on a university or school campus as suggested here. This, as opposed to neighborhood cats, which themselves visit the university grounds.”
“The latest international trend, even for dog visitation programs, is to allow the animal ‘choice and consent’ in what it is to do. Even though a cat can be trained and habituated to transport in a box or walking on a leash, doubts remain about its choice and consent,” Dr. Turner noted.
Dr. Turner further pointed out that the people conducting these stress relief programs and animal-assisted visits may not be aware of the signs of distress in cats, “which can be quite individual and varied.”
“A cat that is doing therapy visits with people absolutely would need to be very outgoing and comfortable with new people and okay with travel, whereas a cat serving as an ESA could be a ‘homebody’ who is loving to their own person/family, but not with new folks,” said Dr. Hoy-Gerlach.
“This is an ethical question, just as it is for dogs trained to do this. The various international organizations on human-animal relations (IAHAIO) and [Animal Assisted Intervention] AAI (ISAAT) state that there should be no negative consequences for the companion animal involved in such activities, and that the natural behavior and needs of the animal must be respected and fulfilled at all times.”
— Dr. Dennis Turner
“The myth of cats as aloof and unresponsive to people is suggested to be as much about behavioral conditioning as anything else. There’s a great new documentary on Netflix about cats that explores this notion,” said Dr. Hoy-Gerlach.
“Cats who are raised with people and socialized can offer a consistent source of affection, comfort, and companionship that can support people in self-regulation when distressed,” she said.
“For people with high emotionality who have more sensitive/reactive nervous systems, such support could be especially impactful. The warmth of a cat’s body, the vibration of a purr, the texture of the cat’s hair, are all sensory inputs for us that can assist us with ‘grounding,’ e.g., staying in the present moment, when we are distressed.”
— Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach
Dr. Hoy-Gerlach said that dogs can also provide this sort of support but that “the size of a cat and [their] simpler care needs” could be an appeal to some people when it comes to living with them as companions.
Dr. Pendry said that selecting the right kind of cat was crucial in establishing this emotionally supportive connection.
“[O]ne that enjoys interactions with humans and behaves in ways that demonstrates that joy through ongoing participation rather than trying to train cats to respond in a certain way,” would be ideal she said.
Dr. Hoy-Gerlach, meanwhile, said connection is the key:
“Having a support animal is ultimately about having a reciprocal, mutual relationship with another living being from which one derives comfort and biological, psychological, social and emotional benefits. The animal should derive such benefits as well!”
Choosing your support animal
“Match-making, as with any successful relationship, is critical.”
— Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach