UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
The tiny calico kitten nestled into the crook of my arm and peered up at me with large eyes that had seen so little of the world. The past couple weeks had been stressful for me, but in that moment, I felt at peace. There was no doubt that Becca’s foster kittens, who she had brought to our weekly lab meeting, had put me in a better state of mind. But I also enjoyed catching up with my coworkers and I was glad just to be back at the ranch after spending too much time at home, so it was hard to tell if the kittens were solely responsible for reducing my stress. Soon after that lab meeting, I chose a scientific paper to present to my coworkers as inspiration for our own future experiments. I had initially hoped that we could incorporate some of the paper’s methods in our research, but I discovered that, like my experience with the kittens at the lab meeting, the study was full of confounding variables. My presentation ended up being mostly a cautionary tale about what to avoid in our own research.
The paper I chose investigated the effects of pet therapy on physically disabled children in an education and rehabilitation facility (Demiralay and Keser, 2022). The researchers hypothesized that levels of stress and social anxiety would decrease in the children receiving pet therapy compared to the control group. The pet therapy group received seven weekly therapy sessions with a Persian Chinchilla cat, which involved a variety of cat-related activities, including learning about cats, reading stories and poems about cats, and receiving physical therapy with the cat present. The researchers gave the children surveys at the start of the program, partway through, and at the end to measure their stress and social anxiety levels. The children’s blood pressure was recorded after each session. Overall, the program resulted in decreased self-reported stress and social anxiety levels and lower blood pressure.
The design of this study reminded me of when Becca assigned Nora and I to come up with ideas for a possible mini pig workshop, in which participants would do structured activities with our therapy pigs. The assignment was a way to start thinking about how we could involve the local community and find actual applications for our research before we started the daunting task of designing our experiment. Nora and I had lots of ideas for the workshop, including making toys for the pigs and walking, training, and grooming them. While our hypothetical workshop sounded fun to attend, turning it into a controlled experiment seemed almost impossible. Ideally, the control group should do everything the pig therapy group does minus the pigs, but how could we find pigless equivalents for all those different activities?
I was hoping that the cat therapy study would give me some ideas about how to control for a bunch of different variables, but oddly enough, there was almost no information about what the control group did. The authors mentioned in their discussion of the study’s limitations that, unlike the control group, the children in the pet therapy group were encouraged to express their feelings. They also experienced a variety of social interactions and stimulating activities with the researcher in which the cat may or may not have been relevant. As far as I can tell, the children in the control group did not participate in any similar activities. Although the researchers did develop a successful therapy program, its applicability is limited because we don’t know which aspects of it were most effective.
After my presentation, my coworkers acted out the experiment, pretending to be the researcher and the children receiving therapy with the Persian Chinchilla cat, who was played by Becca’s foster kittens. This helped us visualize the experimental design and it also made us laugh. But which aspects of it brought us the most joy? The kittens? The silly cat story I wrote? The shared experience of acting together? We concluded that a simpler experimental design would be more valuable, and I left the meeting feeling inspired to design a stronger study.
Demiralay, Ş., & Keser, İ. (2022). The effect of pet therapy on the stress and social anxiety levels of disabled children: A randomized controlled trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 48, 101574. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2022.101574
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!