Why having a dog is like being on drugs
Studies show contact almost doubles levels of oxytocin and serotonin
It turns out dogs really are bred in the bone – theirs and ours.
So are horses, pigs, cows and all animals that get the oxytocin system flowing, according to a new book that gives sound scientific reason for why we spend billions on the quality and quantity of our pets' lives.
Made for Each Other: The Biology Behind the Human-Animal Bond, by Meg Daley Olmert, offers the proof most pet owners don't need about how and why we bond to animals.
"It is run on the same physiology that allows a mother to recognize her baby as her own and want to pick it up and hold it to her breast and protect it," Daley Olmert says. "That's the piece of the puzzle that nobody had put together."
Oxytocin is best known as the hormone that causes labour and lactation in nursing mothers. But we all produce it, need lots of it and, when we have animals in our lives, it becomes a "renewable system" of relieving stress.
The science of social bonding has only been understood in the past 15 years. Oxytocin, and other chemicals that make up the social brain network, exist and work powerfully in all kinds of animals, promoting reproduction and social behaviours. Its origins stretch back to the earliest people, who began to share caves with wolves.
Humans had been prey for animals for a million years. What changed?
Her book theorizes that the earliest interactions created a powerful chemical feedback system that became genetically advantageous and part of the evolutionary process, taming and, at the extreme level, domesticating the animals that made development possible.
Daley Olmert's early life was spent in a New York housing project, where she had no pets, but a definite "way" with animals. She went from working as a veterinary technician to writing National Geographic documentaries and to a show that examined the ways wild animals assist humans.
After learning about oxytocin in people, she participated in a University of Maryland study of the hormone. At the same time, a flood of studies showed oxytocin stimulates the cortices that control emotions, quiet fears and can switch off the powerful defence system known as "fight or flight."
It isn't voluntary, which is why our species survives, and it isn't specific, making "beauty" literally in the eye of the beholder, Daley Olmert says. "If you perceive something as being not threatening and attractive, it will release this chemistry."
That chemistry makes us comfortable, prompting us to be gregarious and enter social relationships, animal or human, she says.
So it's not "unconditional love," as so many animal lovers cite for the reason they're devoted to their pets. "It's highly conditioned by this chemistry," Daley Olmert says.
"Studies have shown that human and animal contact, specifically with people and dogs, almost doubles levels of oxytocin and serotonin," she says. "At this point, it appears that our pets are the most powerful releasers of oxytocin in our brains and that could account for the fact that when your pet dies, you feel like a cannonball got fired through you."
Urbanization is another reason we need our pets so badly, the book says. Farms kept us steeped in oxytocin for 10,000 years. We relied on animals for everything from heat to strength to food, maintaining a critical feedback system.
It has taken only 100 years for most of us to leave farm life. There has also been a dramatic increase in psychological problems, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, hypertension and stroke, Daley Olmert points out. Coincidence?
"These are all the type of psychological and physiological effects you would expect to see (with oxytocin deprivation)," she says. "I would extend that to the care and emotions being lavished on pets. It's a natural corrective.
"(Pets) certainly have stepped in to fill the loneliness void that modern society has created," she says.
Mar 04, 2009 04:30 AM