Animal visitation programs allow people to de-stress by spending some time with furry friends, usually dogs and cats. They are particularly popular on college campuses with nearly 1,000 schools offering animal contact as a way for students to reduce stress. Kids are even willing to wait on line for the privilege of petting a Yorkshire terrier, Russian Blue or animal of considerably humbler pedigree.

They appear to be on to something. These programs actually work, a new study suggests. And it only takes 10 minutes of furry contact, even less time than a typical nature break does, to lower the body's stress response.

Reducing stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health.

Most studies that have measured the effect of animals on stress have done so in a laboratory setting. Researchers from Washington State University wanted to observe these effects in a real-life setting. They chose an established program at a university in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Shelter cats and dogs were brought to campus by the local Humane Society, and students were allowed to interact with them for 10 minutes, during which they could pet, play with or just hang out with the animals.

The effects of contact with animals on stress were analyzed by taking before and after measurements of the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in the students' saliva.

Those who spent time with the animals were compared with three other groups of students. One group sat quietly in another room. The second group watched a 10-minute slide show (not video) of the same dogs and cats others were playing with. The third group waited on line and watched the lucky people who were playing with the animals, from about eight to 10 feet away.

The students who got to spend time with the pets showed the greatest drop in salivary cortisol, and presumably, in stress.

“We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions,” said study lead author, Patricia Pendry, in a statement. “What we wanted to learn was whether this exposure would help students reduce their stress in a less subjective way. And it did, which is exciting because the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health.”

For more details, see the article in AERA Open, an open access journal published by the American Educational Research Association.