Oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone or, my personal favorite, the cuddle hormone, is released with a person's touch. It multiples in women after giving birth or breastfeeding, and in the brains of both women and men after a massage or an embrace. Thus, it represents the scientific side of human bonding, both romantic and between a mother and her child. It has been known in studies to stimulate feelings of serenity, happiness, and love, dampening fear and stress and nurturing trust and security; oxytocin also bears the power to prevent depression and long-term anxiety issues. Whether the standard human levels of oxytocin differ in autistic individuals is being explored, as there is a suspected relationship between the hormone and recognition of human emotions.
As is clear, oxytocin is an empathy hormone of sorts, physically fostering connections between people. This definition raises a question, however: is oxytocin only released by a human's touch? What about people and their pets - does hugging Fido have similar benefits to hugging a partner or a friend?
Studies have already proven that pet owners live longer and are less prone to depression. More specifically, scientists have shown that those of us with dogs or cats have better overall cardiac health. After holding pets, people had healthier blood pressure and lower levels of stress.
I'm generally not a touchy-feely person. But when it comes to my many pets, I can never get enough snuggle time. I find that holding my bunnies or petting my puppy makes me feel at peace and even blissful, and it causes me to wonder: is this a possibility? Could the power of pets to release oxytocin in our brains rival that of a human's? Could the touch of an animal be therapeutic? If so, does one kind of pet have more of an effect on oxytocin than another - for example, mammals versus non-mammals, big animals versus small?
It's worth a look. In the meantime, science forgotten, no one doesn't love cuddling with a puppy when times get tough. Álit encourages organizations which bring pets to hospitals and nursing homes. If you're interested in making someone's day, look into the animal-visiting program at your local hospital, and share the wealth of your loving pet with those who need it most.