Once upon a time, you were just a regular person who slept late in the mornings and never worried about leaving shoes laying around the floor. Then one day, it happened — you looked at a furry little face and just knew that they were worth going on three walks a day or even cleaning a litter box. But as emotional as it is to fall in love with a pet, there’s also science behind it too.
WHY DOGS AND PEOPLE BOND
IT’S A FRIENDSHIP THAT’S LASTED THOUSANDS OF YEARS
A long time ago your ancestors lived in the wild where creatures occasionally wandered up to their campfire, including some wolf-like and feline ones who turned out to be pretty cool. But for survival, these humans had to pay attention to stay safe. This evolutionary necessity to be attuned to animals is how the biophilia hypothesis explains the bond people have with pets. You’re inherently drawn to and calmed by animals because in the past paying attention to nature would have kept you alive. Now you still feel that peacefulness when you’re with your pet, even if there’s no chance of you being attacked by a grizzly bear in your apartment.
IT’S COMPROMISE THROUGH CO-EVOLUTION
Having co-evolved together, people and pets have had a lot of time to get to know each other. They developed new behaviors over time just to make each other happier, and you and your pet still do these things today. Humans are now surprisingly accurate at understanding different types of barks and their meanings. Dogs have become whizzes at reading facial expressions and have a left scan bias for human faces — which is the same way humans read emotions in other people. Cats, who generally communicate with each other through body language and scent marking, actually developed meowing vocalizations just to chat with people — including one, high-frequency solicitation purr that’s perfectly crafted to trigger urgency in the human brain. Now that’s impressive.
IT’S LOVE AT FIRST (AND SECOND, AND THIRD) SIGHT
You know how you could look into your furry friend’s eyes for hours? Well, that’s likely how dogs came to be domesticated. Turns out that prolonged eye contact between a dog and their person causes both to experience a significant increase in oxytocin, the brain hormone that’s responsible for promoting bonding and nurturing. Why? Originally, dogs and humans learned that looking at each other provided benefits — attention and treats for dogs, protection and a sense of safety for people. However, this evolved into a sense of mutual connection so that today pets and people are just happy whenever they see each other. But don’t go making eye contact with just anyone — when a similar test was tried with wolves raised by humans, the wolves would barely make eye contact and oxytocin levels hardly went up at all. In fact, the wolves probably perceived the gaze as a threat. It’s even more proof that the dog/human connection is pretty unique.
IT’S NEVER-ENDING GOOD VIBES
Just by being together, pets and their people create a positive reinforcement loop that keeps the lovefest going. Eye contact, as well as cuddling, petting and playing, lead to a release of oxytocin. Then, that oxytocin stimulates even more social interaction, which makes the bond stronger by increasing empathy, face memory, trust, and social skills. All that leads to, you guessed it, more eye contact and more oxytocin. The result of this increased happiness hormone level is a better mood, increased relaxation and calmness, and a better ability to cope with depression and anxiety — all things that make you want to be with your pet more than ever.
IT GROWS OVER TIME
Can’t resist asking to pet someone else’s pup? Don’t worry, we won’t tell your dog you cheated. But while it’s always fun to make new friends, there’s nothing like petting your own dog. One study showed that while there was a significant increase of oxytocin and a few other hormones like dopamine in both humans and dogs after 5 to 24 min of petting, interaction with one’s own dog rather than an unfamiliar one resulted in a stronger effect. So anyone can get their cuddle fix at the dog park, but overall being a pet parent leads to more potent and long-lasting effects.
IT'S BENEFICIAL FOR PETS AND HUMANS
For dogs and cats, being a pet is a pretty sweet deal. They get food, shelter, care, security and love. But humans get a lot in return. Having a pet does a lot to alleviate loneliness. There are also physical benefits like the decrease in stress hormones you experience when you pet a dog or cat, and the stress relief and exercise that comes from walking a dog. This combination of mood enhancement, social support and reducing anti-stress related measures such as lower blood pressure and lower heart rate means pets are promoting overall wellness. These multi-dimensional health benefits could also explain why pet parents are generally described as healthier and more resilient in the face of stress and have lower risk of heart disease than those without furry friends.