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The Biology of the Human-Cat Bond

By Meg Daley Olmert

Author of "Made for Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond"

The following article was specifically written for use by Dr. Douglas Schar in regards to his scientific work with American Burmese and imported Thai cats.

In 2011, researchers at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station and the University of Vienna analyzed hundreds of hours of videotaped interactions between 41 humans and their cats.  What they found was what millions of cat owners have known for millennia: that cats are pretty much as aloof or caring as their human owners.

Approach a cat with an open heart and mind, and you can find yourself

immersed in a deep and rewarding relationship built on mutual

comprehension and appreciation.  In other words: Love.

This study showed that it is women who tend to recognize and nurture the

deepest relationships with cats.  As someone who has studied the biology

of the human-animal bond for 25 years, I’d say this is evidence of the

neurohormone, oxytocin at work.  All social mammals—male and female--

make oxytocin in their brains and bodies and oxytocin plays a central role

in creating all social bonds.  Parental bonding is critically supported by

oxytocin—and since mothers are the first and most essential caregivers—

it is not a coincidence that estrogen amplifies the production and potency

of oxytocin in women.  Dogs of course hold the title of “man’s best friend,”

and we now have several studies that show that friendly, nurturing interaction

with a dog releases oxytocin in both owner and best friend.

No one has yet looked at the neurochemistry of the human-cat bond, but I contend that the size, shape, and floopiness of a cat are very infant-like and therefore built to push several of the most potent “oxytocin-buttons” in those who hold them close.  The warmth and softness of their fur as we stroke it, the limp weight of them in our arms and feel of them pressing against our chest trigger—just as infants do—the tactile nerves of touch in our hands and mammary region that excite the oxytocin centers of our brains, filling us with a sense of affection and commitment towards these babies.  And did I mention the purr?  This reflexive response of cats to loving touch is music to our ears and, yes, our oxytocin brain network.  It is just a matter of time before scientists discover that purring is the music of oxytocin.

So, you are not crazy if you think your cat is your baby.  The affection you feel for each other is running on the same ancient brain chemistry that evolved to support parental care and commitment.  And as an added bonus, oxytocin sits at the center of a powerful anti-stress system that promotes that feeling of contentment and wellbeing that sweeps over our cats and us and we curl up together.

As a leader in the field of the human-animal bond and Director of Research for the Warrior Canine Connection Program, I am always asked, “what kind of dog do you have?”  When I reply that I don't have a dog, but I do have 2 cat-dogs, people are so surprised.  Let me qualify that—just those who’ve never known the love of a great cat. I have been privileged to know and love several. Despite the great dogs in my life, it was a cat that gave me my first profound immersion in oxytocin—an experience that changed my heart and my life.  

Today, the two great cats in my life come from Doug Schar.  Coco is a

9-year-old Tonkinese who is beloved by all.  And of course, you cannot

have just one Indian Springs cat. Last year, Pi a Burmese Boy came to

live with us and the party really kicked in to high-gear.  In fact, Pi just had

to swim for dear life as a pair of Osprey drove him from the nest they are

trying to build on my neighbor’s boat.  That’s Pi, always on an adventure,

always ready for more.  Both these cats kayak with me, go on long off-leash

walks, car rides, and are the life of every party.  This unofficial human-cat

bond study I’ve been conducing with these Indian Spring creatures has

given me the greatest joy of my life.  I know that most cats (like most people)

have the capacity for great love, but these cats are bred for it—which really

does make all the difference.  I feel as if I haven’t even begun to plumb the

depths of where my relationship can go with these very special animals.

At Warrior Canine Connection, we also breed dogs for health, confidence and a loving temperament—in other words, for the most robust oxytocin system.  Our dogs will be trained to become service dogs that will provide mobility and social support for Wounded Warriors.  The most recent finding in genetics and epigenetics (the effect of environment on DNA) tell us that we can—WE MUST—breed for best health and temperament. I feel so blessed and overjoyed to know that my babies are the product of this higher level of consciousness and contentiousness.  They make me a better person every day.

Meg Daley Olmert

Made for Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond (DaCapo, 2009)
Director of Research

On top of making excellent pets, I believe the cats I breed are actually good for you. The Dog-Cat can actually make you healthier. 

When I come home from where ever I have been, and my Dog-Cat is waiting at the door, and wants to be picked up and carried around like a baby, it makes me happy. I don't know why, but it does. My primary cat is named Bruce Lee 2, and when I get home, and he does all the weird stuff that he does, it puts a smile on my face. Research has shown that smiling improves your health. Smiling is good for you, and these cats will make you smile. 

One of the great things about breeding cats is you get to know all kinds of interesting people. Meg Olmert is one of those people I met being a purveyor of cats. She has two of my cats. I work in health, and have for a long time, and I have my opinions about how these cats can improve your mental and physical health. However,  Meg Olmert has made the relationship between people and animals a real life study. I mean, she has really studied the effects having these cats in your life has, and, had kind of created her own science. She was kind enough to pass on her thoughts on these cats for you to read.

Meg has written a sensational book on the subject, which, if you really want to know about how good it is to have a pet, you should grab a copy and have a read. Her book is called, "Made for Each Other, The Biology of the Human-Animal bond." In the meantime, here are some words from the expert.

These Cats Improve Your Health