Lately, social media has been littered with headlines about how dogs love their owners “5X more” than cats do. Click bait? Mostly, but they are basing the finding on a scientific study run by a real scientist. Does that mean that the findings could be true? I think that pet owners need to read in between the lines on this study to find where the truth really lies.
The Scientific BBC Study
The study was created for a BBC television show called “Cats v. Dogs.” This new show intends to test cats and dogs in different ways to show which animal is better at which things. For this particular episode, Dr. Paul Zak, a neuroscientist, explored whether cats or dogs appeared to love their humans more by testing their levels of oxytocin. He is a speaker and author of a book titled The Moral Molecule (affiliate link), which is about oxytocin.
Zac’s study included 20 pets and their owners – 10 cats and 10 dogs. A sample of the pet’s saliva would be taken 10 minutes prior to a playful interaction with their owner and then again immediately following the interaction. The saliva samples were then tested to determine the level of oxytocin circulating in the pet’s body.
The results of the study showed that the dogs showed much larger increases of oxytocin than the cats did. Dogs had an increase of 52.7% while cats only had an increase of 12%. Also, only half of the cats tested showed any increase of oxytocin level.
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone that is known for increasing social interaction in mammals including humans, cats, and dogs. Some have termed it “the Cuddle hormone” or “the Love hormone.” When humans see someone they care about, oxytocin levels in their bodies rise. These levels are also known to rise when someone is hugged, touched, or achieves orgasm. Oxytocin makes people want to interact socially and can make it easier for them to understand social cues.
It is important to note that there are a lot of other functions of oxytocin too. The discovery of this hormone was in relation to childbirth. It seems to play a role uterine contractions and can speed up the delivery of a baby. Many of the roles that have been heavily studied are in relation to childbirth. lactation, and the mother-child connection. Males also produce oxytocin, but females appear to be more sensitive to it.
A Heavily Skewed Story
Just because a study is done in a scientific way by a real scientist does not mean that it is accurate. Setting up a study so that it fairly tests all subjects is actually very difficult. There have been a number of scientific blunders in history due to studies that were skewed in one direction. For example, I had a sign language teacher who liked to tell a story about one scientist studying intelligence in deaf children in the 1960’s. The scientist went to an elementary school for deaf children just before Easter. One of the questions that she would ask (in sign language) to the children was: “The Easter Bunny will be coming to your home soon. What would you like him to bring you?” The children would begin crying and screaming in horror. None of them wanted to answer the question and when they did, they gave strange answers. This scientist concluded that these children had mental retardation. Little did she know that the whole time she was incorrectly signing the word “bunny” and instead signing “devil.” Unfortunately, many deaf children were diagnosed with mental retardation because of studies like these until the 1970’s.
Problems with Dr. Zac’s Conclusions
Just like the deaf children had the odds unfairly skewed against them in the story above, the Cats v. Dogs study is skewed against cats. Here’s a few examples:
The sample size was very small.
Most scientific studies of this type (not invasive or harmful to the subjects) will get the results from 100 or more subjects before coming to a conclusion. This is done to show that there really is a pattern (or not) in the results being received. My guess is that this was quickly done to accommodate the television show and not meant to be a full-scale study.
- The study was done in a laboratory setting.
Dogs and humans are okay with traveling to unfamiliar places for a visit, most cats are not. Cats are often quite distressed when they leave their home environment. My cats, especially Cinco, would not be interested in engaging in play with me in an unfamiliar setting. However, at home, they almost constantly interact with me. We play happily all the time (see Niptoons). Also to this point, the scientists that were conducting the study were the ones who collected the saliva samples before and after the play session. The cats in this study likely had anxiety about being in a strange place, but also from being handled by humans they didn’t know.
- The results were dependent on the pet completing a behavior on cue.
Unless they have been specially trained to do so, cats rarely respond to the requests of their owner to do something in particular. They play when they feel like playing. Does this equate to not loving thing humans? If you draw that conclusion from it, then you must also conclude that your human loved ones do not love you because they do not always want to do what you would like them to do when you would like them to do it.
- The scientists didn’t expect cats to do well.
Dr. Zak is quoted as saying, “It was also a nice surprise to discover that cats produce any (oxytocin) at all. At least some of the time, cats seem to bond with their owners.” To be fair, he didn’t think dogs would produce as much as they did either. There has been other small studies regarding oxytocin levels between dogs and humans, but this was a first for cats and humans.