Our pets don't actually emit a magical love spray which makes us want to feed them, buy them toys and clean their litter boxes. However, stroking a cat does cause a release of oxytocin in both humans and our animal companions, which is often called the "love hormone."
What Is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone produced in the hypothalamus. This nine amino peptide is then released into the bloodstream through the pituitary gland. It then binds with oxytocin receptors in the brain and spinal cord. This chemical is often referred to as the "love hormone" because oxytocin levels rise significantly in response to kissing, touching and breastfeeding.
Oxytocin and Motherhood
Oxytocin is responsible for the physical mechanisms involved in mammalian birth. It stimulates uterine smooth muscle contraction, facilitating labor. It also stimulates milk letdown, enabling milk to be ejected through the nipples. The hormone is sometimes given in synthetic form, as pitocin, to ease labor and increase lactation.
Emotional Effects and Health Benefits
Since the 1990s, scientists have been looking at oxytocin's effects beyond the breasts and uterus. They discovered, for instance, that the hormone is responsible not just for the physiology of mothering, but for mother-infant bonding. They have also studied its effects on human emotions as well as the positive health benefits it offers. Scientists now believe that higher oxytocin levels are related to increased trust and generosity. Oxytocin can also enhance the ability to feel empathy for others. Oxytocin is one of the hormones that helps create a romantic bond between two people. It can also help reduce the levels of stress hormones in the body. The hormone also has anti-inflammatory properties and higher levels of oxytocin in the bloodstream can help reduce pain.
Human-Animal Chemical Bond
Touch, including sexual touch between two partners, a mother breastfeeding her infant, as well as a human petting her cat, causes strong levels of oxytocin release. Meg Daley Olmert writes in her book "Made For Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond," that the optimum level of touching between pets and their people is a rate of 40 strokes per minute. Although touch provides a strong stimulus for this hormone's release, it is not solely dependent on this sense. Olmert cites a Japanese study which showed that even eye contact between people and their pets helped raise oxytocin levels. The author, who participated in a University of Maryland research team studying the neurobiology of social bonding, refers to oxytocin as "a taming molecule" [which] "inhibits fight/flight," enabling us to bond not only with other humans, but with members of other species.
- Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond; Meg Daley Olmert
- Colorado State University: Oxytocin