The birth of a baby is said to be a life changing experience where the primate brain, once focused on life’s necessities, food and shelter, shifts gear into misty-eyed obsession with a familial bundle… But what if the baby is covered with fur? Do we get the same, overwhelming feeling of contentment, social recognition and kinship if our chosen mammalian progeny has four legs instead of two?
Maternal bonding (or paternal, in many cases) is essential to the survival of all mammals. Human babies, with their undeveloped brain, can still focus their primal systems on finding the food, warmth and attention that will keep them alive. Using primitive brain systems, babies learn their mother’s voice, odour and face, while mirror neurons prompt mimicry, creating the ‘first smile’ that further endears them to the people who have so quickly become their doting caregivers.
How can nature induce this bizarre attitude change in a parent from selfishly independent individual to enthusiastic advocate of a Groundhog Day-like existence? The answer is oxytocin. Oxytocin, a neurohormone produced in the brain’s hypothalamus, was first identified in 1902 when scientists noted its action on the muscles producing labour contractions. It was quickly dubbed the ‘female reproductive hormone’ and remained so until the 1980s, when it was realised there was more to the ‘oxytocin story’.
It turns out oxytocin is necessary for a whol-istic bodily balance, a wonder drug for optimal physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. So, are the mothers of newborn humans the only ones privy to this miracle love drug? It seems not!
The good news for pet owners, especially those with fur-children, is that recent research has proven that loving and living with animal companions can almost double oxytocin production in owners. While bathed in oxytocin we feel calm, less stressed, more positive, have better digestion and a strengthened immune system. Our heart rate and blood pressure is lower (via brain connection to key cardiac excitatory centers) and organs and bodily functions are kept in good working order. This is just the tip of the scientific iceberg. Oxytocin’s links with treatment for autism, Alzheimer’s and ADHD are currently under investigation.
So, for the many of us who love our pets like children, no longer consider yourself an ‘animal nutter’ but more a sort of biological genius. The power of oxytocin to alleviate physical pain and psychological distress can be produced from simply a pat of the cat, making oxytocin-enriched pet owners healthier, happier and more socially desirable humans. You can’t bottle it, but you can understand and appreciate the importance of the human-animal bond.
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