By Christie Aschwanden December 15 at 12:08 PMWith final exams bearing down on them this month, nearly 1,000 students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond turned out for “Paws for Stress” — a chance to pet and play with therapy dogs.Pets were once considered a leisure interest, one best kept at home. But there’s a growing recognition that in addition to companionship, animals may offer humans a tangible health boost. VCU is just one of many colleges making therapy dogs available to students to help them cope with the stresses of finals, says Sandra Barker, a researcher at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU’s medical school and an organizer of the event.Humans have a long history of keeping creature companions, and if you ask most animal lovers if their beloved pet makes their life better, they’ll say yes. But can a pet improve our health? That’s a question that researchers are beginning to investigate. The field is still in its late infancy, says Barker, and the evidence remains mixed. At the moment, some of the best evidence for the benefits of pet interactions comes in the mental health arena, she says. When fingers meet fur, people tend to relax and feel less stressed, says Steven Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, a group funded by the pet product industry. One recent review of 69 studies found evidence that human-animal interactions could lift mood and reduce stress and anxiety, perhaps by activating the hormone oxytocin.