July 13, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Science seems to support what pet owners have always suspected: some animals really do feel love.

By Faye Saulsbury
14th February 2022

We talk about lovebirds and puppy love, and we all have an aunt who affectionately calls us “pet.” But are these animal-related terms of endearment well-founded? Do other members of the animal kingdom feel love the way we do? Some studies seem to say yes.

The magic potion behind all this is oxytocin, more commonly known as ‘the cuddle chemical’. 

In humans, oxytocin is released in its largest quantities during childbirth, to aid the contractions of the uterus. But it also plays an important role for both males and females, helping us form social bonds with each other. When we kiss and cuddle, our levels of oxytocin increase, lowering our blood-pressure and making us feel calmer. 

And it’s not just humans who benefit from a dose of oxytocin. 

Meerkats, famously social animals, become even more caring and cooperative when dosed up with the love drug. Meerkats with elevated levels of oxytocin have been observed to spend more time guarding and maintaining the burrow. They also shared more of their food with the pups, even those which were not their own offspring. The wide-ranging effects of oxytocin suggest that social behaviours in meerkats come as a package deal, with one hormone able to influence all of them.

A link between sociable, loving behaviour and the cuddle hormone has also been found in an animal class you may not expect: birds. 90% of bird species are known to mate for life. Until recently, however, it was not known whether these bonds were for practicality only. Now, scientists have found evidence that mesotocin – the avian equivalent of oxytocin – causes ravens and jays to feel all loved up, and perform generous behaviour that does not directly benefit the individual.

More extensively studied than meerkats or jays are, of course, our pet dogs. 

Dogs have been found to produce elevated levels of oxytocin when in the presence of their human owners. Dogs with raised oxytocin levels are more likely to follow the cues of their owners, and less likely to show physical signs of stress.

What’s especially strange is that dogs produce more oxytocin when interacting with people than when interacting with members of their own species. This behaviour begins early. Within months of being born, puppies actively choose proximity to humans over proximity to other dogs.

Interestingly, this effect is replicated even when the human company does not come with an edible treat, suggesting that our loyal pets are not just in it for the food. This may only be confirmation of what dog lovers already knew: a dog really is man’s best friend.

So, as we celebrate love this Valentine’s Day, don’t forget to turn to your pets and tell them “I love you”, because now you know they love you too!

Faye Saulsbury is the I,Science Editor-in-Chief. She is currently studying for the MSc Science Communication here at Imperial College. Faye has previous experience as a freelance writer, and has a long-standing interest in magazine production and design