A new study suggests that dogs as well as mammals in general use oxytocin not only for the sake of instinctive reproduction but also to promote stronger connections and possibly harmony within the groups of their own.
Oxytocin is a hormone that most mammals produce naturally. It comes form the hypothalamus of the brain and is released by the pituitary gland.
Because of oxytocin’s positive effects on behavior, it has been unofficially called the “bonding hormone” or the “love hormone,” and recently, researchers have also been studying its effects on the behavior of canines.
A team of scientists at Tokyo University have created a study , which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where their findings indicate that the use of oxytocin causes dogs to display stronger bonding behavior with both people and other dogs.
Being one of the most “popular” hormones, there were many previous studies done on its effects in humans. Scientists have found that there were increased levels of the hormone present in people during sexual arousal, and studies have also shown that the hormone can cause people to be less antagonistic and more social.
Study of oxytocin in dogs
In order to see how an increased level of oxytocin would change a canine’s behavior, researchers studied 16 adult dogs with the help of their owners.
In the beginning of the study, each pet had a mist sprayed in their nostrils. One group of dogs had oxytocin spray while the control group had salt water sprayed in their noses. The next step was to observe the dog’s behavior constantly while taking urine and blood samples every five minutes.
Conclusions of the study
Researchers found that the levels of oxytocin in participating dogs was raised by more than just the amount that was contained in the mist. Canines’ bodies began producing more of the hormone when they detected the intensified levels.
The most interesting part of the study were some major changes in the behavior of the dogs who received the oxytocin spray.
Researchers observed how these dogs tried to hold eye contact longer, sniffed, pawned and nudged their owners more. Basically, they were exhibiting more obvious bonding behavior.
Similarly, many of the same effects were noticed when these dogs were allowed to interact with other pets; their bonding behaviors didn’t change even after the mixing different breeds within the group, which shows an extreme potency of the hormone.
Oxytocin has been proven to play a huge role in the sexual reproduction process of both male and female humans. Particularly, it has been shown to be released in large amounts during the child birth process.
Now this study also proves that oxytocin is heavily involved in the development of the social relationships of canines, and it suggests that the hormone may play a crucial part in the social bonding of all mammals.
Of course, more research will need to be done to prove the latter theory, but this study definitely got the ball rolling.
Dr Paul J. Zak, often referred to as “Dr. Love”, has also been working on a new study of oxytocin in dogs and cats. His observations were recently published in the Atlantic, but after reaching out to him for the actual paper, we were informed that the study is currently under review in a journal.
Nevertheless, it’s pretty exciting to see what additional scientific data will Dr. Love bring to this very curious topic.
- Romero T et al. Oxytocin promotes social bonding in dogs. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jun 24;111(25):9085-90. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1322868111