Oh, collective human mind, how you disappoint me. You repeatedly demand yes-or-no conclusions on matters as variable as individual beings. (“What do men/women really want?“) You conduct studies and surveys and wrong-headed data-tweaking to get those conclusions. (“Do bisexuals exist?“) Then, when you have your “proof,” you oversimplify it and shout it to the world. (“Are men or women smarter?“) But soon you ask the same questions, cite different evidence, and reach slightly different conclusions. You prove nothing except that proof has again eluded you. You reinforce divisions where none should exist (“Are cats or dogs better?“), forcing two concepts to race each other when they’re clearly designed for different tracks.
In this parade of overconfident approximation, along comes a study and documentary from the BBC called Cats vs. Dogs: Which Is Best?. (I wish I were making that up.)
The documentary has two parts. The “love question” appears in the second part, which as of today, Feb. 9, has not aired yet. A look at the methodology, though, shows that it proves nothing. Still, that hasn’t stopped some from proclaiming its results as proving a simple, basic truth.
First, though, let’s outline the methodology: Researchers measure levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” in cats and dogs as the animals interact with their humans. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 10 cats and 10 dogs played with their owners for 10 minutes each, after which oxytocin levels were measured. The cats showed a 12 percent increase in the hormone, while the dogs showed a 57 percent increase.
Here are a couple of conclusions:
“A BBC study indicates your cats don’t love you very much,” the Journal-Constitution’s lead sentence reads.
“Dogs and cats are wonderful pets — for the right owners,” the Today show proclaimed. “But when it comes to dogs, that mutual affection is a whole lot stronger.”
The first stop in our deconstruction is the sample size. A group of 10 individuals interacting for 10 minutes might be adequate to make an interesting point for a TV show, but it’s not enough to draw conclusions about anything as vague and variable as love between three species.
Second is oxytocin itself. Melissa Dahl, writing for Science of Us, points out that researchers have begun to study oxytocin in humans (never mind animals) only in recent years, and that its role is far from clear. Dahl quotes Shelley E. Taylor of the American Psychological Association: “People got carried away with the idea of the cuddle hormone. It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles.” An article on the website of the American Psychological Association acknowledges oxytocin has been associated with the building of trust and connection, but that it also appears in elevated levels, for example, in women who are in distressed relationships as well as those who are in good relationships. It has also been shown to decrease trust and teamwork in certain situations.
Dahl links to an article on sex-education site Scarleteen, which illuminates that many of the publicly accepted facts about oxytocin originated from politically motivated abstinence-only organizations that advocate monogamy while opposing contraception and sex outside the context of marriage. Regardless of your sociopolitical leanings, if you belong to an advocacy group that zealous, you’re too biased to get out of your own way in a study on associated topics. My conclusion on oxytocin? Observing it might make an interesting addition to a larger study about love and bonding, but we don’t know enough to draw conclusions based on its presence alone.
The third stop involves differences in cat and dog behavior, namely, that dogs are generally comfortable with travel and new surroundings whereas cats are not. Dahl, in Science of Us, quotes University of Brisol scientist John Bradshaw as saying, “[C]ats, being territorial animals, usually react badly to being taken out of their regular environment. Dogs on the other hand, usually stay relaxed provided their owners are there.” This could easily account for the differences in oxytocin levels. “Frankly, I’m surprised that any of the cats’ oxytocin levels went up, because they would have been stressed by the setting,” said Bradshaw, author the books Cat Sense and Dog Sense.
I’m not here to claim that cats love us more than dogs, or that a better study would prove that. I’m saying that such a question is absurd on its face. Love between people and animals doesn’t need to be scientifically quantified. If you love cats, adopt a cat. If you love dogs, adopt a dog. If you love both, adopt both. Adopt a turtle, a hamster, some fish, and a ferret while you’re at it. Your heart will tell you which ones are right for you. The very question of which species is better at love, to me, brings love into a laboratory, straps it to a table, and writes numbers all over its face with a big black Sharpie.
That’s not love. That’s accounting.
About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. This career journalist loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.