Why do we love our pets so much? And why do they love us? These are the central questions posed by Meg Daley Olmert's 2009 book about the biology of the human-animal bond.
Her inquiry follows the research done on the role of the hormone oxytocin in animal behavior. If you're of a certain age, you probably think of oxytocin as the hormone that initiates labor, delivery and lactation in humans. But over recent years, research has focused on the much broader role that oxytocin plays across all mammal behavior, and especially in that of domesticated animals.
As it turns out, according to Olmert, oxytocin suppresses the fight or flight response, one of the most powerful motivators in the animal kingdom; it also stimulates trusting, close, and nurturing behavior and lowers stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, Olmert and others make the argument that oxytocin may have been a major factor in the domestication of animals.
Olmert brings a new perspective to several of the major themes in the behavior of domesticated animals, covering well known stories such as Clever Hans, the "trick" horse, Rico, the brilliant German Border Collie and the taming of the Russian silver fox and points to what she thinks is the role of oxytocin in these events.
The central theme of the book is the relationship between pet dogs and humans. It's now possible to measure the degree of oxytocin produced by interacting with our pets and, as you might expect, petting a dog produces high levels of oxytocin in both the human and the dog. The best anti-stress results are produced at forty strokes a minute, the same rate we naturally use to stroke our pets.
One study showed that the biggest factor in who survived a heart attack was not family or friendship, but whether a patient had a pet. Interestingly, another study showed that when humans are performing a stress test, having a friend or spouse nearby had no effect on reducing heart and blood pressure, but the presence of their dogs kept them significantly calmer. Simply owning a cat produced a 30% reduction in the incidence of heart attack. It is often said that during tough times people prefer the comfort of a pet even to their closest human kin.
Is anyone surprised that stroking a pet produces a feeling of well-being? Well, no. But it is interesting to see this profound effect has shaped our shared history with animals and to speculate on how we might leverage the effects of oxytocin to improve our future. It certainly helps to illuminate why so many of us have chosen to work with animals and why we derive such pleasure from it. Grooming produces oxytocin in both the groomer and the groomee!