Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that is released during the act of touching and hugging. For these reasons, the hormone is often referred to as ‘the cuddle hormone’ or ‘the love hormone.’ (The hormone is also released during childbirth, by the way).
As a dog owner, your relationship with your dog is likely to involve you and your dog triggering the release of oxytocin in one another. Temple Grandin, animal behaviourist and autism researcher, has found that ‘A dog’s oxytocin levels rise when his owners pet him and petting his dog raises the owner’s oxytocin too.’ In other words, this hormone plays a role in the human-animal bond.
In 2003, J.S.J. Odendaal and R.A. Meintjes of the Life Sciences Institute at Pretoria published research into the blood levels of endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin, B-phenylethylamine and dopamine (all associated with pleasure response or relaxation) and cortisol (a known stress hormone) in people and dogs both before and after they interacted with each other. The researchers compared levels of the neurochemicals under three scenarios: 1) after people petted their own dogs 2) after they petted unfamiliar dogs and 3) after they sat quietly and read a book.
In both humans and dogs, the levels of the pleasure-response chemicals rose after 5 to 24 minutes. At the same time, cortisol levels in humans fell as they spent time with their pets. The increase in oxytocin was highest in the group where people interacted with their own dogs, as opposed to dogs that were unfamiliar to them.
In 2008, Miho Nagasawa’s research team in Japan showed that only eye contact was necessary between dogs and their humans to increase oxytocin levels. After 30 minutes of contact with their dog, owners showed an increase in oxytocin levels.
Dr Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg from Uppsala University, studies oxytocin and its effects. Her 2010 study showed that women and their dogs experienced increases in their oxytocin levels after only 10 minutes of contact. When compared to a survey of the women, their oxytocin response was in direct correlation with the quality of the bond they felt for their pet.
For those of us who have experienced this bond during our lives, it is probably not surprising that there is a scientific reason for our feelings and that it is hormone-related. But it’s nice to have science on our side.
For those of you raising puppies, these studies show that there is a good scientific reason to ensure your puppy is socialised. It is not surprising that dogs involved in hoarding cases or puppy mills are withdrawn and in many cases frightened of humans. They aren’t accustomed to the positive effects of oxytocin release and in many cases have suffered other traumas.
Hey Daisy, give me a hug…I need the oxytocin.
Have you hugged your dog today?
Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand