The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Pampered Pooch Syndrome

How much is Fido Worth?

Several years ago I stopped the execution of Teddy by adopting him. Sorry, "put down" is the polite euphemism. Today, Teddy is 98 in human-equivalent years. Inevitably, I will soon have to decide if I should spend thousands of dollars to extend Teddy's life when he undoubtedly begins to suffer from cancer, kidney failure, or some other ghastly malady. In public lectures, I have often asked who would spend $5,000 to save their dog's life. Typically, one-half of the hands go up. When I ask who would spend $10,000, many hands remain up. Why do we care so much about our dogs?

To the best of our knowledge, about 15,000 years ago people in East Asia domesticated wolves to guard huts, help with the hunt, and to be companions. Selective breeding has produced the roughly 400 types of dogs today. A 2004 study by the American Animal Hospital Association reported that 94% of U.S. pet owners believe their pets have human traits. If recent reports on tabloid TV and my own experiences living in Southern California are any guide, many people, including media magnets like Britney, Paris, and Jessica have gone farther, dressing up their dogs in human clothes and taking them on "dates." Yipes!

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Why do we pamper our pooches so much? This is where science can help us. You may remember from earlier posts that oxytocin has two primary characteristics: hungry and fuzzy. Hungry means it is looking for attachment figures. The brains of highly social animals like humans have evolved to make caring for others rewarding, and we are on the lookout for rewards. Fuzzy means the oxytocin-addled brain does not pick attachment targets very precisely. Because dogs are around us, they are available attachment targets.

Some evidence: a 2003 study in the Veterinary Journal showed then when people pet a dog, oxytocin is released in the dog and in the human. The uniquely mammalian hormone oxytocin facilitates that hallmark of mammals, care for offspring, by activating reward circuits in the brain. An earlier post described research from my lab showing that touch between humans primes the brain to release oxytocin and causes people to sacrifice money to help a stranger. Dogs love to be pet. The oxytocin response leads to reciprocal rewards, reinforcing human-to-dog bonding.

Now look at who we see "babying" dogs. Often, these are successful young women who have delayed reproduction due to career opportunities or an extended period of mate selection. The dogs they choose to dress up and take out are tiny Chihuahua-type dependents. Huum, perhaps you're seeing a pattern: delayed reproduction has moved the nurturing oxytocin system to seek an infant-substitute as a target. But, we can all be oxytocin-ed into treating our dogs like our children. Oxytocin makes us treat strangers like family, and dogs like humans. It's that powerful.

As I mentioned in an earlier post oxytocin is also released when we are shown trust by another person. In my experiments, this occurs when one person gives money to another person. Classic research in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography showed that people with dogs are judged to be more trustworthy. Why? Dogs are very dependent on humans, so one cannot have a healthy dog without being a dependable person. It is likely that dog owners have greater oxytocin levels than non-dog owners due to repeated petting, providing a physiologic rationale for our have-a-dog-seem-more-trustworthy intuition. When I walk Teddy, children and adults alike approach me to pet him, and a conversation almost always begins. Conversation is the basis for building social relationships.

Oxytocin also reduces stress levels and makes us more likely to reach out toward others. Let's be honest, it is hard to be a grump when you walk in the house and your dog is happy to see you. This is why many hospitals use "canine therapy" to cheer up patients.

Dogs are our companions, and make us happier, healthier and nicer people. That's a neat trick for a wolf's relative. So what if we sometime dress them up like humans. Yes, dogs really are our best friends. So how much would you pay to keep your dog alive?

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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