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Eyes And Oxytocin


The irresistible gaze of "puppy-dog eyes" has roots in thousands of years of human evolution alongside domesticated dogs, say these anthropologists and psychologists.


June 29, 2018

Stella Starr, Pet Perspectives


Maternal experience upregulates oxytocin receptor expression in the brain (17), ..... including enhanced social memory, improved eye gaze when viewing faces....” (Nat. Institute Of Health, Doctors Dubowitz and Papas)

I found that thought-provoking. I thought of my Persians but dog owners might picture the large luminous eyes of a Chihuahua when thinking about expressive big eyes. I read somewhere that those eyes are what kept the Mexican Chihuahua out of the cooking pot when the Spaniards invaded but now I wonder if it was the release of ii oxytocin, the bonding hormone (instant information) that softened those cruel conquistadors. I looked it up. Men release oxytocin during sex and we know what they did to women captives. Surely those women begged them to spare their children and tiny dogs so the oxytocin must have worked.


Japanese scientists documented that direct pleasing eye-connection releases oxytocin. That is what causes bonding between two people or in this case, between owners and their favorite pets. Fish and bird owners don’t experience the same oxytocin release as a dog or cat owner. As much as you admire your other pet species, you would nod and agree with the anthropologist’s statement that on a chemical basis “we get this kind of biological impulse to bond, and animals have the same impulse to bond with us." In other words, your fish, rabbit or parrot sees you as a food provider.


Please bird owners, don’t write to me. If your parrot isn’t clipped and he gets loose, he will leave you for other birds.


Back to the hormones. I know dog breeders think of oxytocin as a clean-out shot after whelping but it has more interesting effects. Big, round eyes are a common infant features in most mammals. We are drawn to huge soft eyes of a fawn or a baby horse. Their eyes will melt the hardest heart because it causes a release of the bonding hormone, especially in women.


You mothers are thinking “is she going to mention a human baby?” Oh absolutely! I’ve had some of those too. Oxytocin release goes off the scale when human mothers hold their baby and make eye contact. I well remember that my baby was telling me something special when she smiled up at me while nursing.


Sadly, human babies get over that wide-eyed innocent look and become adults. When you look at the eyes of convicted criminals… oh, I don’t want to wander off topic but I give you this thought. Horses, deer, camels and cows – their big eyes stay huge, consistent with survival but in hunting animals, including mankind, those baby-eyes become proportionally smaller as the face matures.


There was a time when I thought I was specially gifted with a one-of-a-kind pet that could communicate with me through some sort of extra-sensory perception. Turns out that anyone who is tuned in to their pet (or human friend) can do that. Direct, intense eye contact with our with dogs (cats often ignore us unless there’s petting or food involved) is what releases that “bonding hormone”.


My Persian cats are one of the few species that don’t out-grow those overly large eyes and like a Pekingese, it is the luminous “baby” eyes that activate oxytocin in us. But it isn’t just the “look” that our pets give us that says “I’m hungry”, it is reach-out-to-you mental communication.


I don’t know how it works in species born with eyes closed so the birth process itself must include the release of oxytocin hormone. I wonder if that has anything to do with the shorter time predator animals depend on their mother? A foal or calf nurses and stays close to mom even when she is ready to deliver her next baby.


So the point is that the oxytocin bonding chemistry is only released by eye contact between humans and certain other species.


I have a horse owner friend and when we went out for tea, she admitted that she loves to look into her horse’s soft big eyes. He looks directly back at her but when I probed a little more she admitted it is a one-way bonding experience with horses. We may bond with a horse but let’s face it, he doesn’t “love” us.


Now there’s a puzzle because horses do have that luminous, all-seeing eye, especially the Arabian horses that share the uniquely big beautiful eyes with “sight hounds”. I supposed that has nothing to do with the oxytocin thing the scientists are buzzing about but it is interesting.


Professor Robert Losey confirmed a chemical connection that archeologists can now relate to because it wasn’t just the elite humans who had their dogs buried with them. Dog bones have been unearthed with prehistoric man and centuries later, humans began to dress up their dogs with jeweled collars which suggests they believed dogs had an afterlife too.


I’m no anthropologist or Biblical scholar but I am convinced that the oxytocin-eyes connection was part of a great plan.


When I “feel” my cat staring at me, I know she’s communicating and I’ll turn around. I’m willing to believe that we deliberately developed over-sized eyes in the animals we keep as personal friends because, well, because we could. Because our psyche demanded “someone to talk to” that really understood us. EST 2002 © 1806



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