Check out this interesting article from the Atlantic about neurochemical research that sheds light on the emotions of dogs and cats…
I’m not a dog person. I prefer cats. Cats make you work to have a relationship with them, and I like that. But I have adopted several dogs, caving in to pressure from my kids. The first was Teddy, a rottweiler-chow mix whose bushy hair was cut into a lion mane. Kids loved him, and he grew on me, too. Teddy was probably ten years when we adopted him. Five years later he had multiple organs failing and it was time to put him to sleep.
When I arrived at the vet, he said I could drop him off. I was aghast. No. I needed to stay with Teddy. As the vet prepped the syringe to put him to sleep, I started sobbing. The vet gave me a couple minutes to collect myself and say goodbye. I held Teddy’s paw until he died. Honestly, I didn’t think I was that attached.
This experience led me to undertake experiments on animal-human relations to try to understand how animals make us care so much about them. Biologically, I wanted to know if pets cause the people to release oxytocin, known as the neurochemical of love, and traditionally associated with the nurturing of one’s offspring.
Oxytocin might explain why people spend thousands of dollars to treat a pet medically rather than euthanize it and simply get a new animal.
My lab at Claremont Graduate University in California pioneered the study of the chemical basis for human goodness. In the past decade, we have done dozens of studies showing that the brain produces the chemical oxytocin when someone treats us with kindness.
I call oxytocin the “moral molecule” because it motivates us to treat others with care and compassion. Oxytocin was classically associated with uterine contractions in humans, and in rodents caring for offspring. Our studies showed that a large number of agreeable human interactions—from trusting a stranger to hold money for you, to dancing, to meditating in a group—causes the release of oxytocin and, at least temporarily, makes us tangibly care about others, even complete strangers.