Economist and writer Richard Zak stunned the world this week when he announced in an article in The Atlantic that cats and dogs release oxytocin and stimulate the release of oxytocin in other animals, including humans — and this implies that animals are capable of love.
Well, okay, he didn’t stun anyone who had an idea that cats and dogs, being mammals just like us, are equipped with very similar biochemistry. And he certainly didn’t stun anybody who has ever lived with cats.
While it’s nice reinforcement to know that animals release oxytocin and stimulate the release of oxytocin in other creatures — including creatures of different species — I’m clearly not the only person who has never doubted cats’ ability to love. The comments on the post are full of responses with the same general thesis: "Well, duh!"
I’m most definitely in the "well, duh" camp. Even before I knew anything about biochemistry, I knew how to empathize and I had an intuitive grasp of facial expressions and body language and the emotions they reflect. When I learned about oxytocin and its influence on the parent-child bond, I figured that must also apply to relationships between people and their animal companions.
The first time I remember experiencing an "oxytocin rush" was April 6, 2003, when my brother’s then-girlfriend placed my three-day-old niece in my arms. Just the act of touching her and looking into her eyes sent energy spiraling outward from my heart through the rest of my body until tears fell from my eyes.
Does holding a cat and looking into her eyes have a similar effect on me? Well, yes, but on a much smaller and quieter scale. It’s not something that explodes through me like the love for my newborn niece did, but when I pay attention I perceive it as a gentle and almost tickly rhythmic flow of energy between my heart and the cat’s.
Yeah, I know that’s kind of woo-woo and all, but that’s really the only way I can explain how it feels. I have no way of knowing if cats feel the same thing, but I do know that cats’ ability to perceive energy (emotional, physical or otherwise) is pretty high.
Based on my own observations, I also don’t think cats would accept and reflect the energy coming at them if they didn’t want to. They know a weird-in-a-bad-way person when they see one, and they avoid contact. If forced to make contact, they will extract themselves from the situation in any way they have to.
But do cats love in the same way we do?
A commenter going by the name of Dr. Preobrazhensky said, "People have a strong verbal and analytic component to their emotions. Animals do not. Animals experience love on a primal ‘gut’ level but their nonverbal experience is qualitatively different for ours. It is maybe comparable to that of a preverbal human infant or toddler who loves their parents. A powerful feeling indeed, but not the same as what we experience."
While it probably is true that animals experience love on a primal or gut level, I don’t think this is all that different from the way humans experience it. Human love acts on a primal level, too — the verbal and analytic part happens when our brain observes what we’re experiencing and tries to label it with words and rational explanations.
And honestly, who’s to say that cats don’t think about and observe emotions? There’s a lot we don’t know about how cats’ brains work. There’s a lot we don’t know about feline intelligence and how they analyze their feelings.
What do you think? Have you observed feline love in action? How do you imagine cats perceive love? Have you ever experienced an oxytocin rush when holding a cat? If you’ve had children, how was that oxytocin rush similar to or different from the one you felt when you held your children for the first time? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.