Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

How to Measure Your Dog's Love Hormones

if we treat our dogs like kids, what happens in custody battles?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who considers their Golden Retriever a member of the family, that when couples split, the decision of who gets Rover is, these days, not just another argument but a custody battle. A few years ago, a law student proposed a scientific solution: Why not measure the pet’s hormones after spending a few weeks with each owner. Whichever stint yielded the highest level of oxytocin and prolactin—the love hormones—gets custody.

That all sounds so scientific and so black-and-white, except for the fact that hormones are so much more complicated. That shouldn’t come as any new revelation. Ever since we dubbed hormones hormones—back in 1905—scientists knew that our pituitary, thyroid, sex glands and all the rest of the hormone-spewing organs secrete teeny amounts of the stuff that interact with each other to create a cacophony of messages that ricochet around our bodies and, for the most part, keep us running smoothly.

So, while the oxytocin/prolactin test sounded like a simple solution, it was yet another oversimplification to a wonderfully and frustratingly complex hormone system.

I read about this hormone-dog-custody notion in David Grimm’s recently published Citizen Canine, a book that tells how we transformed animals from farm labor to family members. My initial reaction to the book, before I even opened the cover, was probably the same as many pet owners. Do I really need to read a few hundred pages to tell me how we indulge our four-legged brethren. But Citizen Canine has so many fascinating facts about the history of animal domestication.

The whole issue of personhood for animals, for instance, started as a way to staunch animal experimentation but has legal and societal implications far outside research labs. As Grim writes, once you give pets personhood, are their owners, parents? And if so, you can’t buy one. That’s slavery. Animal abuse, then, would not only mean blatantly hurting a dog or a cat, but perhaps withholding medical treatment. Where do you draw the line?

Grimm, a cat owner, earned a Ph.D. in genetics from Yale, is deputy news editor for Science and teaches journalism at Johns Hopkins. He knows his stuff and knows how to tell a story. He created what could have been a scholarly slog of legal and anthropological cogitations into a page-turning narrative.

As a dog-lover myself, in addition to the juicy historical tidbits and incredible legal battles, I liked his musings on the benefits of our pet-adoring culture. Take this one for instance: As we sink into a world of cyber-friends and texting instead of talking, dogs and cats, he said, bring us back into old fashioned one-on-one, in-the-moment living.

“The bonds that unite us are breaking. And it’s only getting worse. As society fractures, can anything hold us together? Cats and dogs just might. Companion animals keep us anchored to the real world. You can’t play with your dog on Facebook. You can’t cuddle your cat with a Tweet. Their love and warmth are the antidote to an increasingly cold and indifferent society. Their presence in our lives fills a void left by disappearing friends and family.”

I know Ellie, my 10-pound-dog, is my eager walking companion. We love each other unconditionally, no matter what her or my hormone levels may reveal.

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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