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We’re Not So Crazy After All

Has anyone ever looked at you with your dog and suggested you are just a little to fond of your four-legged fur kid? Are you getting tired of hearing that it’s just a dog and to stop using it as a child substitute? Are you over the articles about how bad it is to anthropomorphosis your pet?

Well, worry no more. Science has, again, finally proved what us pet owners have known all along. It’s natural, and it’s all got to do with oxytocin, often nicknamed the “cuddle chemical”.

Oxytocin is the hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It is suggested to play a role in the behaviours of social recognition, pair bonding, love and maternal behaviours. It is also suggested to support the twin emotional pillars of civilised life – our ability to empathise and trust.

What has this got to do with my dog, I hear you ask. Apparently quite a lot. A recent study has shown that dog owners experience a shot of oxytocin after playing with their pets, and suggests that this flood of the “cuddle chemical” could explain why playing with dogs can lift moods and even improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.

So why do some of us feel more connected with our pets than others? Well, apparently there are two variants in the genetic code for the oxytocin receptor that differ among individuals. Researchers found that those carrying the so-called A version of the oxytocin receptor scored significantly lower on a behavioural  task and higher on a stress-prone task than did subjects with the G variant of the receptor.

It is interesting to note that one of the tests carried out in the human research was to ask participants to look at 36 black-and-white photographs of people’s eyes and to choose the word that best described each subject’s mood. In completely separate research a similar ‘eye reading’ test was carried out between pets and their owners that suggested that eye contact is a good indicator for the bond between owner and dog.

Two groups were selected according to how long the dog spent gazing at their owner, and these groupings did reflect changes in the owner's oxytocin levels. Long-gaze owners tended to rate their relationship with their pet as more satisfying than the short-gaze owners, and their oxytocin levels on average rose by more than 20% during the play session. Short-gaze owners that avoided their pooches' gaze saw their oxytocin levels drop slightly.

What does this all mean? Quite simply it shows that we are all different, some of us have a closer relationship with our dogs than others. For those of us that fall in the fur-loving group, don’t take any more guff. Due to our G variant receptor, our love for our dogs is a perfectly natural hormonal reaction to eye contact and physical interaction. For those of you who keep asking us why, it is just your receptors A variant keeping you from enjoying, to the same level, what we enjoy every day.

So stand proud, science has officially declared that we aren’t crazy after all.
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Lisa Wolfenden © 2009

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