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.
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.
In our animal experiment, 100 participants came into my lab and we obtained blood samples from them to establish their baseline physiologic states. Then they went into a private room and played with a dog or cat for 15 minutes. We did a second blood draw after this, and then had participants interact with each other to see how they behaved toward humans, too. If animals caused oxytocin release in humans, it would explain my surprise attachment to my dog Teddy, and perhaps why people spend thousands of dollars to treat a pet medically rather than euthanize it and simply get a new animal.
Our previous studies showed that when humans engage in social activities with each other, oxytocin levels typically increase between 10 percent and 50 percent. The change in oxytocin, measured in blood, indexes the strength of the relationship between people. When your little daughter runs to hug you, your oxytocin could increase 100 percent. When a stranger shakes your hand, it might be 5 or 10 percent. If the stranger shaking your hand is attractive, oxytocin might increase 50 percent. Oxytocin is considered a reproductive hormone. It increases powerfully during sexual climax, establishing long-term bonds between romantic partners. Our experiments focus on what causes the brain to make oxytocin and its behavioral effects.