I have always known that being with animals makes me feel good, so I was excited to hear about Meg Daley Olmert’s book, Made For Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond. In this book, Olmert explains that the warm and fuzzy feelings we have toward other animals relate to brain chemistry, especially to a powerful neurochemical called oxytocin.
All mammals produce oxytocin, known as the “bonding hormone.” Oxytocin is thought to facilitate feelings of trust, affection, empathy, and attachment. It reduces stress hormone levels and “tames” the fight or flight response in both humans and animals. Humans experience elevated oxytocin levels during various kinds of comforting physical contact, such as hugging, massage, breast feeding, and sex.
According to the research that inspired Olmert’s book, oxytocin levels also rise as the result of positive contact with other animals. One study showed that after friendly encounters between dogs and their human companions, oxytocin levels nearly doubled in both dogs and humans. In another study, scientists demonstrated that even just eye contact between dogs and their human companions was enough to raise oxytocin levels.
As intriguing as this research is, I couldn’t help but wonder why we needed proof of something as obvious as humans and their companion animals making each other feel good. But as our farms have turned into factories, and our lives have become more and more estranged from animals and the natural world, the scientific “proof” that animals are good for us might help facilitate some urgently needed changes in research and manufacturing industries. Perhaps it will also inspire more people to adopt homeless animals from shelters if they know that when we care for animals, they “care” for us by making us more trusting, affectionate, and empathetic. Olmert’s book reminds us that animals make us more “human,” in the very best sense of the word.
The Gift of the Human-Animal Bond
As the holidays approach, consider giving yourself—and a homeless companion animal—the mutual gift of the human-animal bond. But before you head down to your local shelter, take a few minutes to think realistically about what kind of animal you can successfully bring into your home. Here are some questions to consider before making the decision to share your life with an animal. • Do you currently have companion animals at home? If so, you need to consider how the new animal and your existing animals will get along.
• How long will the animal be left alone? Dogs have a hard time being left alone all day, so if no one in your household will be around during the day, you will need to find someone to take your dog for a walk in the middle of the day.
• Are you looking for a running partner or someone to curl up with in front of the fire? Younger dogs are better suited to active families, whereas an older dog makes a wonderful companion for less active families. Additionally, try selecting breeds (or mixes of breeds) that are suited to your activity level. Your local shelter can help you explore the role of breeding in behavioral tendencies.
• Do you want a lap cat or an independent one? Breeding plays an important role in the behavior of cats. Consult with your shelter regarding the breeding of the available cats and kittens.
• If you want a kitten or puppy, will you have the time to train him or her, and to teach children proper behavior around young animals?