The latest on the biology of the human-animal bond.
Posted May 5, 2010
News flash: You aren't nuts if you think your pet is your best friend or baby. Why not? The bond is woven from the same stuff that merges mothers and infants. And, guess what? You aren't imagining your pet makes you feel better either.
The organizers of the 12th International Conference of Human-Animal Interactions have announced that at their meeting this July, scientists will be presenting their latest findings confirming that friendly human-dog interaction releases oxytocin in both human and dog. http://iahaio2010.se/uploads/press-release_bond-with-petsfinal.pdf
The experiment found that women and their dogs experienced similar increases in oxytocin levels after ten minutes of friendly contact. Also the women's oxytocin response was significantly correlated to the quality of the bond they reported in a survey taken prior to the interacting with their pets.
These findings come from the lab of Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, an M.D. and Ph.D. at Uppsala University in Sweden. Dr. Uvnas-Moberg is also a pioneer in the study of oxytocin and its social bonding and anti-stress effects. We met seventeen years ago when I interviewed her for a documentary series I was developing on the history of humans and animals. She had recently been featured in a New York Times article about oxytocin and its newly discovered role in formation of maternal bonds and other powerful social attachments. The article also mentioned Dr. Uvnas-Moberg's findings that high levels of oxytocin, naturally occurring during breastfeeding, were linked to a mother's increased sense of calm and desire to make social connection.
I immediately saw that oxytocin-which is made in all mammals-might provide a biological basis for the human-animal bond as well as the therapeutic effects seen in pet owners and those treated with animal-assisted therapies. I became more convinced when Dr. Uvnas-Moberg told me that she found that that stroking rats 40 times a minute for 5 minutes reduced lab rats' stress chemistry, increased their pain tolerance, and calmed them so deeply, some feel asleep. And that she could produce the same anti-stress effects by giving rats shots of oxytocin. Since that kind of repetitive, soothing touch is exactly how we pet our dogs or other animals, I suggested that a study was needed to find out if the oxytocin-effects she was petting into her rats flowed back to the humans as well. We even collaborated on the design of study to measure oxytocin in humans and dogs during friendly interactions, but sadly, it never got done.
Then, ten years later, two South African researchers (Odendaal and Meintjes, 2003) showed that friendly contact between dogs and humans did release oxytocin in both. Then Miho Nagasawa's research team in Japan (Nagasawa et al, 2008) showed mere eye contact between humans and dogs could cause an oxytocin increase in the dog owners. And most recently, Miller et al., (2009) showed an oxytocin increase in women after greeting their dog when returning home from work. (The men in this study did not get the boost).
To have Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg's findings support these findings is a big deal. She, unlike the other investigators, is a world-renowned oxytocin expert. And oxytocin is one tricky peptide to catch in the act of creating its profound social and anti-stress effects. Having such an oxytocin big shot finally on the trail of what's causing the positive mental and physical effects seen (and documented) in many of the animal-assisted therapies is vitally important to bringing the kind of scientific scrutiny and understanding that will only make animal therapies more effective and more available to us all.
Which is a darn good thing because, as anyone who reads my entries or has read my book--Made for Each Other, the Biology of the Human-Animal Bond-knows, there is no oxytocin pill we can take to cure the social phobias and stress melt downs caused by the lack of nature and nurture of our modern lifestyles. So showing that pets can safely, easily, inexpensively, and immediately give us oxytocin relief is big, good medicine to know about and to take liberally. Thank goodness our pets weren't waiting for the science to roll in before prescribing oxytocin to us.