Love is that internal force that bonds us to our partner, parents, children, friends, and even our pets. But what really is love when it comes down to basics? Recent studies have established that the powerful bond we call love, which is sometimes an almost addictive force, is mediated by the central release of a neurohormone called oxytocin.
Effects of Oxytocin
It is oxytocin that makes us fall in love, facilitates life-long pair bonding, causes mothers to bond with their offspring, and mediates social interactions and emotions. Oxytocin is an anti-stress, feel-good hormone that facilitates social memory causing positive social experiences to imprint. Where would we and our pets be without a mechanism like that to cement our relationships? Certain physical interactions, such as nursing and sex, cause massive release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland, but oxytocin can also be released by touch (as in petting or hugging) or just by an affectionate gaze.
The Pet - Owner Relationship
Attached dog owners who spent 30 minutes interacting with their beloved pets and who received long, doting gazes from them, showed substantial increases in oxytocin. In the same experiment, less bonded owners whose dogs looked at them less frequently showed significantly less oxytocin release. Oxytocin is now suggested as a treatment of some human psychiatric conditions, like autism and schizophrenia, and has been shown to alleviate social anxiety and generally improve sociability in people.
It seems quite possible that in the no-so-distant future veterinarians may be prescribing oxytocin to treat owner-directed aggression, fear aggression, inter-pet aggression and other behavioral conditions. If effective, such treatments would revolutionize veterinary medicine as aggression is the number one behavioral complaint and the principal cause of surrender of pets to shelters and pounds. So remember that love (or at least deep affection and trust) is what you need to solve social problems. When it comes to impaired relationships, whatever the question, oxytocin - like its byproduct, love - often provides the best solution.