Can the ‘love hormone’ measure a cat or dog’s love for us?


Oxytocin is called the love hormone. In a laboratory setting comparing dogs’ and cats’ love for their owners can’t be done by measuring oxytocin levels in their bloodstreams.

Cat love for owner
Cat love for owner. Photo in public domain.
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There was a big discussion some time ago on a finding that dogs love their owners five times more than cats. The conclusion was based on a research project by neuroscientist Paul Zak took which found that dogs produce a lot more oxytocin than cats after they had interacted with their owners. In fact it is said that dogs showed a 57.2% increase in oxytocin whereas cats exhibited a 12% increase.

This was taken as demonstrating that dogs love their owners five times more intensely than cats do. The whole conclusion is based upon how much of this hormone, oxytocin, was in the blood after these companion animals interacted with their owners. I’d like to question the conclusion.

Why the research is flawed

  • Dogs produce oxytocin when they look into the eyes of their owner (Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviorist at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan). The same happens to their owner. A positive feedback loop is created which gradually builds up oxytocin levels. Cats have great difficulty in looking into the eyes of their owner. This is another factor which needs to be taken into account.
  • Perhaps a major factor which negates the conclusion is that the tests with dogs and cats would have been done in a laboratory setting. Under these circumstances domestic cats will normally become stressed to varying degrees because they are essentially territorial animals. They react badly to being removed from their normal environment. The stress would present a barrier to the production of oxytocin. Conversely, dogs normally stay relaxed under the circumstances provided they are with their owner. Therefore the testing was flawed.
  • Another observation is that the ability to increase production of oxytocin in dogs is probably linked to the fact that they are pack animals and cats are essentially solitary creatures. Perhaps dogs need this hormone to help create closer social bonding to reinforce the pack. In other words it has a functional use for survival. This is different to an expression of love, however.
  • ‘It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles.” – University of California, Los Angeles, psychologist Shelley E. Taylor.
  • Lastly, it has to be said that ‘love’ is a complicated subject and I don’t think you can correlate the production of oxytocin directly with the amount of love you have for another being.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is certainly a hormone which is involved in aspects of love. However, it plays a role in sexual reproduction, childbirths. It stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin which reduces anxiety. It gives a person or animal a pleasant feeling.

It counters the effects of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. Therefore oxytocin has a calming effect. It plays a role in social bonding. But is the amount of oxytocin in a dog or cat’s blood an indicator of how much they love their owner?

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2 thoughts on “Can the ‘love hormone’ measure a cat or dog’s love for us?”

  1. Again, if a learned person has to measure a chemical in order to figure out what a sentient creature is feeling (also imposing a complex interpersonal relationship value on it), I’m sad for that person, really sad and frustrated for the pursuit of knowledge in this field of study.

    Reply
    • I tend to agree with you as usual. I don’t think measuring a chemical produced by an animal can really measure that complex emotion called love.

      Reply

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