Oxytocin: Something to Bark About

Everyone knows that looking into a dogs eyes is a nice thing to do. Every wondered why the dog-human bond is so powerful? According to Japanese scientists it is oxytocin, the bonding hormone. A new study found that oxytocin is just as critical a component of the human/canine bond as it is the human/human bond. Researchers (Nagasawa, Kikusui, Onaka, and Ohta) believe that oxytocin causes us to employ the same signals with our dogs that we use with our own children. Furthermore, these signals have played a big role in the domestication of dogs

Oxytocin, pets, and pain. Oxytocin is a natural analgesic. One study demonstrated how adults in pet therapy while recovering from total joint-replacement surgery required 50% less pain medication than those who recover without the additional support. It was found that the oxytocinergic neurons project to other brain areas (Sofroniew 1985) which had the effect of elevating the pain threshold. Dogs with higher levels of pain also had elevated oxytocin in their urine. This is a good time to remind ourselves that pain isn’t always all about us. Sometimes our dogs are in pain and we need to remain sensitive to them as they too often suffer in silence.

If your dog seems a little off—maybe he is reluctant to climb the stairs (bad back? Hips?) or seems withdrawn and inactive (fever? Stomach ache?) he or she may be in some unidentified pain. Ironically, oxytocin helps us to open our eyes and see more accurately the nonverbal clues our pets (and children, and parents and friends . . . ) exhibit such that we can make a better assessment of whether or not a ride to the doctor is required. Just remember that the power of oxytocin does not stop with our ability to bond with our dog, (and vis a vis) but our ability to truly “see” and be seen by them. By the way reptiles don’t make oxytocin but they do make a form of it called arginine vasotocin. I will be discussing this in another blog about the evolution of emotion and mammals and lizards and frogs.