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There's nothing like that dopey, drooley face when you walk in the door. Most Americans have pets, and you find yourself saying things like, "How's my little puppy wuppy," or "You're my little kitty cuddle."
They seem kinda silly when you think about them, but there's a lot going on in these moments. A starting point for understanding the complexity of the human-pet interaction is this question: Why do so many of us become pet parents?
The simple answer is it makes us feel good. We like the unconditional love. Whether you're having a bad day or a good day, dogs and cats love you just the same. It's called devotion.
Also, taking care of animals gives us a sense of purpose. Your pet depends on you, and you depend on them. If we can get scientific for a second, the literature shows bonds between people and pets result in a range of benefits, including:
- decreased blood pressure
- decreased cholesterol levels
- decreased triglyceride levels
- decreased feelings of loneliness
- increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities
- increased opportunities for socialization
SEE MORE: Dream Jobs: Doggy Daycare
Here's the secret ingredient to all the upsides: oxytocin. Oxytocin, which is produced in the brain’s hypothalamus, is the "cuddle" or "love" hormone, a natural "feel good" chemical. It is released when we connect intimately, like snuggling. That rush of oxytocin enhances the sense of connection.
Even looking at each other can trigger the hormone. In one study, dogs experienced a 130 percent rise in oxytocin levels, and owners a 300 percent increase. The longer they looked into each other's eyes, the higher the oxytocin release.
Scientists say this suggests human-dog interactions spark the same type of feedback loop that occurs between mothers and infants. That being the case, it's not surprising that we feel so close to our dogs and our dogs feel so close to us. It's a bond fueled by oxytocin. It's the same bonding hormone that is prevalent between children and their parents, and between spouses.
Of course, the human-dog relationship rarely stops at gazing. Add in some petting and tail-wagging and the mutual response grows stronger. The oxytocin can be elevated by a single meeting with a dog, but longer-lasting relationships with frequent gazing and belly rubs and scratching behind the ears intensify the bond.
It's this bond, this mutual affection, that's expressed in some of these quotes. Sorry, cat owners. These are all about dogs:
"The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs." – Charles De Gaulle
"Dogs never bite me. Just Humans." – Marilyn Monroe
"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." – Will Rogers
And of course, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." – Harry Truman
Any pet owner can tell you the love is real. Now we have the science (and health benefits) to prove it.