Why Do We Love Our Pets?

 Why Do We Love Our Pets?

Anyone who knows us knows how attached we are to our Irish setter Coral.  Coral is now 6 years old, but still has a very “babyish” face – the technical term being neotenic face. Neoteny means the persistence of infantile or juvenile characteristics into adulthood.  One look at Coral’s face and you can see her neotenic features – rounded forehead, relatively large eyes and shortened muzzle. 

Neotenic features have been shown to bring out care giving responses in adults, and partially explain why we have those “isn’t she cute” responses to infants of many mammalian species.

Now new research has identified other factors that influence our attachment to our pets.   Research by Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, a Swedish scientist who will be speaking at the 12th Annual International Conference on the Human Animal Interactions in Stockholm (we spoke at the same conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2001), has revealed that oxytocin levels play an important role.  It’s long been known that oxytocin is released during breast feeding or suckling, but because it can also be released in response to touch, warm temperatures and other stimuli, we now know it may be involved in other social interactions.

In fact, Uvnäs-Moberg’s research revealed the oxytocin levels of both people and their dogs increase after brief “sensory interactions” such as petting.  Uvnäs-Moberg says "The dogs' oxytocin levels displayed a significant rise just three minutes after the start of the interaction. There was also a significant positive correlation between the dogs' and the owners' oxytocin levels after 15 minutes. ''

This research is an important step in understanding the physiological mechanisms that underlie the human-animal bond.  This is interesting to us personally, because for the 6 years Coral has been part of our family, Dan has routinely teased Suzanne about measuring her oxytocin levels whenever she pets, cuddles or talks “baby-talk” to Coral.  But now research tells us that Dan’s oxytocin levels – and Coral's may be rising too!  Turn about is fair play!

Read more about oxytocin here  and about Uvnäs-Moberg’s research and the upcoming conference here

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    Animal Behavior Associates, Inc.
    7900 W. Layton Ave. #905 Denver, CO 80123