News outlets are currently littered with headlines spouting that it’s finally been proven: dogs officially love you more than cats. This is based on unpublished research conducted by neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak as part of a new series on BBC2, titled “Cats v Dogs,” which found that dogs produce more of the “love hormone” oxytocin after playing with owners compared with their feline counterparts.
The experiment involved 20 human-pet pairs: 10 dogs and 10 cats alongside their owners. Since the brain chemical oxytocin has been strongly implicated in bonding, and cats are generally more independent than dogs, Zak wanted to find out whether its levels differed in these animals after interactions with humans.
Zak therefore took saliva samples from all of the companions, both shortly before and after a playful stint with their owners, and measured oxytocin levels. While studies have already shown that both dogs and their owners release oxytocin while gazing into one another’s eyes, likely facilitating the formation of and strengthening close relationships, fewer studies have looked at cats.
On average, dogs were found to produce almost five times as much oxytocin than cats after frolicking with their human companions, with saliva levels rising by 57.2 percent and 12 percent from initial levels, respectively. In addition, only half of the cats actually demonstrated raised levels of oxytocin. While this doesn’t mean that “dogs love us five times more than cats do,” it does at least seem to make sense.
In general, cats are more solitary than dogs – wolves, from which dogs originate, are highly social animals that live and hunt in packs, whereas many cats go it alone. Oxytocin has been shown to facilitate social bonding in dogs, alongside others, and can boost dog bonding behavior towards humans and other dogs when administered externally. On the other hand, studies have suggested that cats don’t form secure attachments with their owners, while dogs depend on humans for safety.
However, there are obvious limitations with both the study and the conclusions. Namely, as Zak pointed out to the Huffington Post, the studies were conducted in a lab environment. Cats are known for being highly territorial and home-loving animals, so it’s possible that they were stressed out and thus not really up for a head scratch. Although, oxytocin has also been linked to stress regulation, at least in rodents, reducing physiological indicators of stress during unpleasant situations.
While this might be a sweet study that we needn’t take too seriously, it does raise an ongoing frustration in the field of science: over-simplification. Oxytocin has many nicknames – the cuddle chemical, happy hormone, love molecule, and yet these don’t nearly reflect the complexity of this substance. It’s suggested to be involved in an abundance of behaviors and physiological processes, from trust to lactation, so to reduce it down to one – love – isn’t overly scientific.