How Do Pets Help Against Airport Stress?. What Does Science Tell Us?

People who travel frequently know that an airport can be a very stressful place: long lines, delays, lost connections, lost luggage, cancellations, or travelers running to catch their next flight are some of the factors that can generate a high, nervous tension to the traveler. It is so true that the term “terminal illness” has been coined  to describe how frustrating it can be to find yourself immerse in some of these problems at an airport terminal.

Scientific studies corroborate that, indeed, the circumstances described above generate significant stress. According to the neuropsychologist David Lewis from Mind Lab, an independent research consultancy, that anxiety can even be higher than that experienced by parachutists or fighter pilots. In his work, Lewis proved that airports in fact lead to an intense heart rate elevation (he mentions cases of individuals that reached 200 beats per minute), higher blood pressure as well as an increased activity of the sweat glands, all of these are unequivocal symptoms of high levels of stress.

The airport environment is clearly hostile and tends to worsen since the number of travelers goes up significantly (in the US the number of travelers increased from 912 million in 2015 to 947 million in 2016) while infrastructures grow at a slower pace.

This situation worries companies that manage airports and the airlines themselves since it is not beneficial for any corporation that their clients have to go through a nervous breakdown every time they have to fly.

What to do in order to fix or at least palliate the problem? Well in the United States there are already 30 airports that count with the service of anti-stress therapists: dogs, pigs, and horses known with the acronym PUP: Pets Unstressing Passangers

The presence of these animals seems to have a relaxing effect for those who pet them (in fact, the animals wear a harness with the words “pet me”).

Here you can see the rationale Los Angeles airport gives about this service: “As traveling can create stress and anxieties at airports, the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program is an opportunity to provide an overall enhanced customer experience, providing stress relief and comfort to passengers through interaction with pets. The pups are the volunteers “own” dogs, and both donate their time to LAX”.

Other airports have other programs such as the CATS (Canine Airport Therapy Squad).

On the left the only cat in the CATS program of the Denver intl. airport.

On the right, a girl petting a participant on the PUP program at the Los Angeles airport. 

But, what does science say about it? Multiple studies prove the beneficial effects of petting an animal, even if we don’t personally know it.

This contact between the traveler and the pet triggers the synthesis of several hormones such as oxytocin, beta-endorphins and dopamine which are responsible for the feelings of well-being which result in lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate and decreased cortisol levels in blood (the less cortisol the less stress and vice versa).

Another study conducted by Japanese experts, proved the relationship between a dog’s look and the production of oxytocin. To cross our gaze with a dog stimulates a release of oxytocin with the beneficial effects previously described.


On the left, oxytocine molecule. When we release it, we feel good. On the right, puppy’s look. It makes us release oxytocin. Don’t you feel better?.

On the other hand, petting an animal stimulates CT nerve fibers. They are the neurons responsible for transmitting tactile pleasuring sensations which are processed in the insular cortex, the part of the brain that has to do with emotions. This stimulation seems to have analgesic and anxiolytic effects.

So there is plenty of evidence to confirm that on top of many important functions related with security –such as detecting explosives or drugs- dogs (and other pets) have other added responsibilities at airports. Pets not only reduce stress and tension levels in passengers but they also serve as a distraction for little kids and have the ability to turn the travelling experience into a more pleasant event.

Maybe to break routine and offer a more interesting interaction –at least less frequent- at the San Francisco airport they have hired a different anti-stress pet: a pig which  joined the team as their 23rd available pet.

Anti-stress pig at San Francisco airport

Other airports like in Cincinnati use ponies for this same function.

Anti-stress mini horse at the Cincinnatti airport

Shouldn’t be pets at all the airports, and bus stations, and trains?. Thoughts?, your experience?

You can follow me at: @juanpascual4

To know more

Terminal 4 passenger stress levels worse than being mugged at knifepoint, Flyertalk, August 2007

Heathrow stress ‘equal to facing riots. The Telegraph, Aug 11 2007

Air trafic by the numbers. Federal aviation administration:

Click to access Air_Traffic_by_the_Numbers_2017_Final.pdf

Odendaal et al, Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour between Humans and Dogs. The Veterinary JournalVolume 165, Issue 3, May 2003, Pages 296–301

Andrea Beetz, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, Henri Julius, Kurt Kotrschal

Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin

Frontiers in Psychology. 2012; 3: 234.

Nagasawa et al. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds

Science  17 Apr 2015:Vol. 348, Issue 6232, pp. 333-336

Richards Sabrina, Pleasant to touch. The scientist. Nov 2012

Jaquette Liljencrantz, Håkan Olausson Tactile C fibers and their contributions to pleasant sensations and to tactile allodyniaFront Behav Neurosci. 2014; 8: 37


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