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July 8, 2010

Her Best Dog Was a Cat

Meg Daley Olmert on the human-animal bond

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Meg Daley Olmert's devotion to her once-feral cat, Coco, runs deep and strong.

Meg Daley Olmert will be discussing her book, Made For Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, (DaCapo, 2009), at the Taking Action For Animals conference July 23-26 in Washington. Her book surveys the latest scientific evidence that humans and animals are linked in ways critical to our health and emotional well-being.

A creator and producer of documentaries for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and PBS, Olmert spent more than a decade delving into the science of human-animal interaction—the neurobiology of social bonding. Learn more about Meg’s work.

Q: What do you hope people take away from your talk at the Taking Action For Animals conference?

That there is a biological imperative—not just a moral imperative—in caring for animals, in recognition of our relatedness to them. We’re social mammals. We’re animals. You are not crazy if you think your dog is your baby. We are connected in this world and we have a shared biology that can nurture us and make us happy and healthy. Our health and well being is biologically connected. We sink or swim together.

Q: Tell us about the pets in your life.

A: I have had many, and each has been extremely responsible for my personal evolution. Right now I have two cats. They go out on the kayak with me! I think the best dog I’ve ever had has been a cat.

When I was working on my book, I had adopted a (once-feral) cat and was helping her raise her kittens. Here I was, 10 years into my research. I knew about mother-infant bonding and the release of oxytocin. I was babysitting these kittens born in my closet. I’d hear the mother talking with them in that special language. I learned it. When it came time to separate from those kittens, it was heartbreaking for her and for me.

I promised her I would be her mother and she would be my kitten. And it was in the act of making that commitment to her, I felt some special chamber of my heart open and I experienced a depth of devotion to that animal that knew no bounds. And she felt it too. I knew instantly it was the oxytocin I had been studying and writing about for a decade. It was textbook. And from that moment on, every cell in my body told me I had to finish this project.

I have always had that thing they call ‘a way with animals.’ I’ve never had children, but this was maternal. I knew that everything I had written about this bond was dead true.

The oxytocin system interacts with dopamine and serotonin. It quiets the “fight or flight” impulse. In humans, oxytocin has been known to increase trust, generosity, and altruism. It promotes social behaviors. It makes us social mammals. When I accepted the responsibility that I would be the mother of this animal, I would look after her and she would look after me, it changed me. To this day, I am wider, I am more open. The recognition of ‘the other’ as kin is very “oxytocin” and very powerful.

Q: How does caring for animals make humans physically healthier?

A: There are studies which show that both dog and cat ownership offer powerful cardiac protection and that the heart rate, blood pressure and stress chemistry of pet owners comes down when they interact with their animals. Oxytocin, it turns out, not only promotes social recognition and bonding, it shuts down the body’s stress reactions which make it an important booster to the immune system. And it is a powerful antioxidant as well. 

What releases oxytocin are any of the sensory stimulations – sight, sound, smell, touch – that are pleasant and friendly. Pets embody all of those things. Human touch—rhythmic stroking—releases oxytocin in animals and in humans. Scientists have shown that when people come into contact with dogs when they come home, both the humans and the dogs doubled their oxytocin levels. Other researchers showed that just eye contact with a dog raised oxytocin levels in humans.

When you come home from work and you’ve had a hard day dealing with the competition and callousness of your fellow humans and there’s your dog, tail wagging, big smile, thrilled to see you—it is a sensory assault of positive feedback. That is the kind of thing that releases oxytocin, like a baby does—maybe even more so, since parents often carry a lot of worry about their babies in addition to the pleasure.

Editor's note: Register now for Taking Action for Animals. The nation’s top conference for animal welfare advocates takes place July 23-26 in Washington, D.C.

 

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