A member of the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS) at Denver International Airport captivates a young traveler. ©Denver International Airport/Facebook

While dogs have been working at airports around the country for some time as narcotics officers and runway-geese police, some animals are now finding gainful employment in terminals in, well, more “fluffy” roles.

But the seemingly softer nature of their careers doesn’t mean their positions are any less consequential. During the clamor and stress of the holidays, especially, their jobs in the travel industry couldn’t be more important.

Meet the crew

More than 30 U.S. airports now have therapy dogs on duty, and the number is expected to grow. Often wearing apparel displaying the words “Pet Me,” these four-legged employees wander through the departure-gate areas of each terminal. Trained to interact with people, the canines stop and visit with passengers who are awaiting flights, providing them with comfort, unequivocal love and cuteness.

At the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, greyhound Ellie is employed as part of the CLT Canine Crew. ©Charlotte-Douglas International Airport/Facebook

The idea got its start shortly after 9/11, when California’s Mineta San Jose International Airport began to use therapy dogs in terminals as a way to soothe travelers’ nerves. Videos of those dogs doing their work convinced other airports to try out the concept.

The most well-known airport to offer free therapy in the form of dogs may be Los Angeles International Airport. Its Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) program has been providing stress relief to travelers for more than two years. Other airports with therapy animals include:

• the Denver International Airport, where the Canine Airport Therapy Squad (CATS) program offers passengers an opportunity to interact with a certified, insured and trained therapy dog as they make their way through the airport. Volunteer pet owners provide their time and their family pets to the program.

The Wag Brigade team at SFO wears blue, “Pet Me” vests that encourage travelers to engage with them. ©San Francisco International Airport/Facebook

• Miami International Airport’s therapy pup is named Casey. She has her own business cards, fan mail, website and a role on Airport 24/7: Miami, a weekly reality show on the Travel Channel.

• At Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport, Bernese mountain dog cousins Gus and Bailey work together to bring long-gone fun into flying. The two pups are more commonly known as “the Berner Brigade.”

• At the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the DFW K9 Crew not only puts anxious passengers at ease, but, as a bonus, the animals’ handlers are trained to help out with customer service by providing directions and answering questions about airport amenities. DFW plans to increase its therapy dog teams from the current 12 to 60, giving them a presence in all terminals.

LiLou and her human companion, Tatyana Danilova, bring smiles to those at San Francisco International Airport. ©San Francisco International Airport/Facebook

The innovative San Francisco International Airport has even gone one step beyond therapy dogs. A special volunteer is making holiday travel there just a little more palatable: a pig named LiLou.

LiLou, a two-year-old Juliana pig, is the first pig to be part of SFO’s Wag Brigade, a group of trained therapy dogs who roam the terminals transforming tense boarding areas into relaxing, fun atmospheres. Her human companion often dresses her in outfits guaranteed to generate smiles, such as a captain’s hat or tutu.

Assess the science

For years, science has shown the value of pets for human health and well-being. In the late 1970s, researchers started to explore the scientific reasons for that relationship. A study published in 1980 revealed that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. A paper published four years later found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.

Research shows that the simple act of petting an animal has health benefits for humans. ©Denver International Airport/Facebook

A 2001 study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that having a person’s dog in the room while he or she is under stress lowered blood pressure more than taking a popular type of blood pressure medication.

In a 2002 report titled Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends and Spouses: the Truth about Cats and Dogs, researchers measured changes in heart rate and blood pressure among people who had a cat or dog compared to those who did not, when participants were under stress (performing a timed math task). The pet owners had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure measures at the beginning of the experiment than the nonpet owners. People with a dog or cat were also less likely to have spikes in their heart rates and blood pressures while performing the math task, and their heart rates and blood pressures returned to normal more quickly. And, when their pets were present in the room, they made fewer errors in their math. All these results indicate that having a dog or cat lowers the risk of heart disease, as well as stress, so that performance improves.

A 2013 book, titled Attachment to Pets: an Integrative View of Human-Animal Relationships with Implications for Therapeutic Practice, provides even more evidence about the benefits of interacting with animals. When you engage with pets, your level of the hormone oxytocin increases, which, in the short term, helps you feel happy and trusting. In the long term, oxytocin keeps the body’s ability to heal and grow new cells in a state of readiness, predisposing you to create a healthier environment within your own body.

LiLou shows off her painted-red toenails, while taking a walk on the streets of San Francisco. ©Travis John Andrews

Obviously, the healing power of pets isn’t anecdotal anymore, but scientific. And while you may not have time to stop and smell the roses during your hectic 2016 holiday travels, I hope you’ll get the chance to caress a canine—or, even, pet a pig.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,