Oxytocin and Pets.
July 19, 2013 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Is the hormone oxytocin released in the human brain when you interact with any pet, or does this only occur with cats and dogs?

In the past few years, scientists have discovered that the hormone oxytocin is released in our brain (and in our dog's and cat's brains) when we pet our pets? This hormone is responsible for the social bonding that occurs between pets and pet-owners. And, this also helps to explain the therapeutic value of pets.

I have seen some things about horse back riding too, therapeutic riding. Is oxytocin released in our brain when we ride a horse? Is it released in the horse's brain?

What about rabbits? Is oxytocin released in the human brain when you pet a rabbit? Is it released in the rabbit's brain? If it is not released in our brain when petting rabbits, then is there no therapeutic value to petting a rabbit?

How far does the oxytocin thing go with pets? What about parakeets? Hamsters?

I have a limited science background, so please excuse any ambiguity in the question. I am trying to understand the therapeutic value of pets, and wondering what types of pets this applies to. Thank you for any information you can give me to clarify my understanding.
posted by Flood to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I apologize for including anecdotal information, but I can confirm that I receive the "warm, fuzzy feelings" associated with bonding when I interact with birds, snakes, ferrets, fish, hamsters, mice, rats, and rabbits. (These are all or have been pets of mine.)
posted by Nyx at 9:48 AM on July 19, 2013

I believe that oxytocin is released in a humans when the person interacts with any animal the person is bonded to (dog/cat/parakeet/snake/whatever). What matters is that the person is bonded to the animal - not what species the animal is.

Oxytocin is found only in mammals. I don't know if rabbits/hamsters/other mammals release oxytocin during an interaction with a bonded human, but it's possible, and seems likely to me. So, species does matter here - birds, reptiles, etc don't have oxytocin.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:50 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I only have anecdata, but I have pet snails and when I play with them, I get the same emotional response as when I play with a dog. I don't think they do, though.
posted by windykites at 9:50 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oxytocin is released when you feel happy and affectionate. Petting an animal is one way to elicit that. Hugging a person you love works too. So the nature of the animal isn't as important as how you feel about it. If you like a bunny, you'll probably feel some oxytocin when petting it. But if you're creeped out by a snake or something, you're not going to get a rush by bracing yourself to touch it.
posted by zadermatermorts at 10:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Service Iguanas exist. I don't know about the technical oxytocin implications, but there is certainly enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that even iguanas provide therapeutic value, or else Service Iguanas wouldn't be a thing.
posted by phunniemee at 10:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The short answer is that the details of the workings of oxytocin are unclear. Oxytocin does seem to play a critical role in bonding and sex generally, but...how it all works we're just not sure.

The primary experiment that has been done w/r/t oxytocin's role in bonding and pets was with dogs. But it's doubtful that it had much to do with dogs per se. Dogs were likely chosen for the experiment because they are easily controlled and seemed like a logical entry point for studying human-animal bonding. But it's highly unlikely that oxytocin is involved only with human bonding to cats and dogs. For all we known, it could be involved in bonding with toasters or books too. What is clear is that it plays an important role in our sense of belonging, connectedness, etc. Which is probably one of the reasons it's so famous for being released in childbirth, contributing to that immediate rush of mother-child bond.

The thing is, there is a real trend right now in popular science to really reduce neurotransmitters and neuromodulators and parts of the brain to these sort of hypyer-specific things. Oxytocin is the "love" chemical. Dopamine is the "reward" chemical. Serotonin is the "mood" chemical. Etc. But the truth is that it is far more nuanced and complicated than that - and because the science is still pretty nascent, we just aren't sure. Dopamine, for example, is critical for movement, for pattern finding, all sorts of things - so it doesn't make a lot of sense to reduce these things down to "when you pet a dog, you release oxytocin, which is why you feel bonded." It plays an important role for sure, but these interactions we have with animals are not selective drugs.

Oxytocin is released when you feel happy and affectionate

Or is it the other way around...dun dun duuuunnnnn....
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:17 AM on July 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

I agree with others that it's the person's attachment to the animal that's the important thing in that person's production of oxytocin, but I think that there is significant variability between animal species in how easy it is to form a connection. Dogs especially can read and respond to human emotions very, very well, because they have evolved domesticity over thousands of years (See this great PBS special on Youtube). I would posit that because dogs can read and respond to our emotions very well, for most humans it's easier for a human and dog to form an emotional bond than a human and iguana, and thus there would be more and stronger oxytocin-filled interactions with the dog.

Of course, some people love reptiles, birds, hermit crabs etcetera, but what are the universally most popular pets? Cats and dogs. The same pets that have the longest history of contact with humans and evolved domesticity, and the most heightened responses to human emotions.
posted by permiechickie at 11:58 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

It also makes sense that knowing your pet loves you, as a dog or a cat, is going to increase the good feelings- reciprocated affection is more pleasurable, I think, in a lot of cases.
posted by windykites at 3:24 PM on July 19, 2013

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