Therapist

Kitten therapy the prescription for stress

Who can be stressed after sitting in a box full of fluffy, clumsy, playful kittens? No one, that’s who — and we have the video to prove it.

In the short clip above, appropriately titled, “Kitten Therapy: The Prescription for Stress,” unsuspecting passers-by are approached to take part in a short stress therapy session inside of a large enclosed area. What begins as a headphone-guided meditation soon turns into playtime with a troop of adventurous kittens.

The video was created by the website and creative agency SoulPancake in partnership with Purina Tidy Cats. “One day over summer, we posted up right next to the Los Angeles Courthouse in the heart of downtown LA — it seemed like a reliable place to find stressed out people,” the video’s press lead, Lindsay Indermill, told Yahoo Health. “When our unsuspecting ‘patients’ took off their shoes and entered the room, their stress was palatable. These people were all under intense pressure, whether they had just come out of court or were caring for young children alone.”

“The moment those kittens started popping out of the wall, every participant was delightfully surprised.” (Photo by Corbis)

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Just about every person approached for the stunt made the final cut of the video, Indermill said. “The moment those kittens started popping out of the wall, every participant was delightfully surprised.” (Scroll to 1:30 to see the subjects’ reactions … and then wait for your heart to melt.)

But of course the video’s real stars were the kittens themselves, who were recruited from a local shelter by a certified trainer who supervised the shoot and kept the fluff balls safe and happy. Countless people approached the trainer about adopting the kittens, Indermill said.

On Wednesday, the team is conducting “mobile kitten therapy,” taking the animals to media outlets around Los Angeles.

“Our research shows that in general pet owners are healthier and happier people.” (Photo by Corbis)

The Surprising Science of Animals and Stress

While the video is an adorable stunt, it also illustrates the profound effect that animals can have on stress and wellbeing. “Our research shows that in general pet owners are healthier and happier people,” said Allen McConnell, PhD, a professor of psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The magnitude of the effect is modest, but still significant. “People with pets have a greater sense of social connection that helps them cope with stress more,” McConnell told Yahoo Health.

Studies show that animals offer a host of stress-relieving benefits, from lowering blood pressure to decreasing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. In 2013, the American Heart Association even released an official scientific statement outlining the many benefits of pet ownership for cardiovascular health. Among them: a diminished physical reaction to stress, better cholesterol levels, a lower risk of heart disease, and increased physical activity. People with pets are even more likely to survive heart attacks, research shows.

“Sometimes when you’re interacting with an animal, it allows you to forget what’s troubling you in the moment,” said Mary Margaret Callahan, Senior National Director of Programs for the nonprofit animal assistance group Pet Partners. “It’s on opportunity to take your mind off of other things causing stress and anxiety in your life and have a positive interaction with this creature who isn’t going to judge you.”

In addition to stress-relief benefits, scientists have also discovered these strange ways animals affect your health:

Animals not only help you de-stress, but also protect you from stress and change how you cope with it. In one study, stock brokers with high blood pressure could either take blood pressure-lowering medication or take medication and get a cat or dog. After six months, the new pet owners had significantly lower blood pressure than the pill poppers. They also significantly improved their score on a test of stress coping, whereas the medication group showed no improvement.

Studies show that even looking at videos of animals lowers heart rate and blood pressure. (Photo by Corbis)

Animals help relieve pain. A study published in September 2014 looked at joint replacement patients who received visits from therapy dogs in the hospital. People who had visits from furry friends took about 25 percent less morphine during their stay, the results showed. In another study, patients at a clinic for the chronic pain disorder fibromyalgia, waited for their appointments either in the regular waiting room or with a therapy dog. The pooch-petting group reported 23 percent lower pain following their visit.

Animals improve your immune system. Research is still limited, but some studies suggest that positive interactions with animals might help you fight off infections. One classic experiment found that people who pet a dog for only 15 minutes experienced a small boost in immune function.

And if you don’t have an animal at home, you can still reap their health rewards. Studies show that even looking at videos of animals lowers heart rate and blood pressure. So go ahead, watch the kittens again. It’s good for you!

Related: In Praise of Spacing Out

When Soul Pancake wanting to make a difference in the lives of unsuspecting participants, they looked to a tried and tested formula – kittens.

After all, who can resist the sweet, unwavering attention of a tiny animal?

The mentality behind the project sought to take stressed adults out of their usual routines and invite them to partake in an experiment that would (hopefully) lift their moods.

The participants were invited to meditate inside a glass box. They were given headphones and told to relax. Soon enough however, the participants were greeted with a special surprise. As the meditation began, tiny kittens were released into the controlled environment.

It’s no secret that confiding in pets provides some much needed fur therapy, after all, we all need someone to vent to. However, using pets in animal-assisted therapy, has been linked to reduction in anxiety, pain and depression in people with varied mental and physical health issues. Pet therapy has been used in hospitals and recovery centres for years, in the treatment of patients undergoing chemotherapy, PTSD sufferers and those going through physical therapy.

So it’s no surprise that these participants recorded lower levels of stress and anxiety upon leaving the kitten therapy box.

“Kitten Therapy” was created by Soul Pancake (the agency co-founded by actor Rainn Wilson) and Purina Tidy Cats. The kittens were from a local shelter and were accompanied by a trainer and shelter representative.

Would you like to see this initiative in your home town?

A kitten peers over a young woman's shoulderIf you’ve ever tried to escape the misery of a stressful day by looking at photos of adorable animals, you’re not just procrastinating. In fact, animals offer myriad mental health benefits, so those hilarious photos of ironic cats and clueless dogs you love searching for just might be part of the recipe for a happier life.

To demonstrate the stress-relieving effects of interacting with an animal, SoulPancake developed the first “kitten therapy” room in a recent video. Chronically stressed “patients” enter a glass room, where a recording lulls them into a peaceful state of meditation. And that’s when the kittens make their grand appearance, much to the delight of the previously stressed visitor.

So-called kitten therapy isn’t just a gimmick, though. Scientists are steadily amassing a mountain of data showing surprising—sometimes even unbelievable—benefits to simple interactions with animals.

Pet Owners: Happier and Healthier

When you contemplate how pets can benefit people’s lives, you might think primarily about service animals who are specially trained to complete specific tasks for people who are physically disabled. But a pet can benefit any person’s life.

Some people consider their pets to be emotional support animals and register them as such. Emotional support animals don’t require any special training, and they don’t come with any special privileges or access to public places where pets are not allowed the way service animals do—they simply provide companionship and unconditional love to their owners and may help their owners deal with mental health challenges. One 2011 study, for example, found that pet owners had better self-esteem, better physical fitness, and were less likely to be lonely, fearful, and preoccupied than their peers who did not own pets.

People with depression report being happier after getting a pet, and with good reason. Pets keep their owners active, and can serve as social ice breakers, making it easier to talk to other pet owners at parks and pet stores. They also provide an incentive to get up, get moving, and face the world—a powerful antidote to the isolation people with mental health issues sometimes experience.

Benefits of Animal Interactions

If you’re not up for the costs and time constraints of pet ownership, though, you don’t have to miss out on all the benefits of human-animal interactions, as SoulPancake’s kitten therapy makes clear. Research shows that even a few moments interacting with pets can boost well-being. Children who interact regularly with pets have lower allergy rates, likely because they become desensitized to pet dander.

Teens who participated in a study that allowed them weekly interactions with horses showed higher levels of personal responsibility, improved self-awareness, and better relationship skills. Another study of 40 elderly adults found that dogs could help stave off dementia and, in some participants, improve cognitive skills. 

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Interacting with animals requires little effort, but yields big benefits. It should come as no surprise, then, that animal-assisted therapy is increasingly popular. We tend to think of dogs and horses when we envision animal-assisted therapy, but cats, llamas, and other animals can fill the role too. Pet owners can pursue certification for their dogs and cats to become visitors at nursing homes, hospitals, and other health care facilities where patients report that just a few minutes with an animal can make an entire week better.

Though animals have been used to enhance the physiological, psychological, and social lives of humans for many centuries, the practice of using animals in therapeutic settings has not been widely accepted until recent decades. Many mental health therapists find that using pets as a source of therapy for their clients can enhance therapeutic outcomes. Children, for example, may feel more comfortable telling a dog or cat about a traumatic event, and adults can reap the calming benefits of petting an animal while discussing the stress of everyday life.

If you’re interested in working with your own pet to help others, check out one of the many organizations that offers pet therapy programs. Pet Partners is a nationally recognized organization, and the American Kennel Club maintains a directory of local and national organizations dedicated to preserving human well-being through interactions with animals.

References:

  1. New research findings highlight benefits of human-animal interaction. (2013, July 22). Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-07/aw-nrf072213.php
  2. The Differences Between Service Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Emotional Support Animals. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://pleasedontpetme.com/differences.php
  3. The truth about cats and dogs: Pets are good for mental health of ‘everyday people’. (2011, July 11). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/07/cats-dogs.aspx
  4. Townshend, A. (2014, June 20). 5 ways pets benefit your health. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/20/health/pets-health-benefits/
  5. Vormbrock, J. K., & Grossberg, J. M. (1988). Cardiovascular effects of human-pet dog interactions. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 11(5), 509-517. doi: 10.1007/BF00844843

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