do dogs love us

A recent essay by Elyse Wanshel, “Who Loves Their Humans More—Cats Or Dogs? Here’s The Answer” caught my eyes and those of others around the world. How could it not? Dog people and cat people seem always to be talking about how dogs and cats compare with one another—who’s smarter, who’s more loyal, who loves us the most—so Wanshel’s title hit the nail on the head.

So, who’s the real winner with respect to loving humans more? And what can we really conclude by measuring levels of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone“?

Wanshel writes:

“Thanks to a new study done by neuroscientist and professor at Claremont Graduate University, Dr. Paul Zak, which will be featured in the BBC2 documentary show, Cat v. Dog, we have [sic] answer. Canines were proven to love us Homo sapiens five times more than their feline counterparts.”

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A headline in The Telegraph, “It’s finally proven: Scientists test whether cats or dogs love us more,” and many other popular reports use the words prove or proof. Of course, this preliminary study attracted global attention. 

But concluding that there is proof that dogs love us five times more than cats seemed a bit too fast for me.

I wondered just how robust the results of this study were. Did they really “prove” that dogs love humans “five times more than their feline counterparts?” I emailed Paul Zak about his study. He kindly responded (with permission to quote him): 

“It was a mini-study for the BBC. Since N=20 diffs are not stat. sig. Change in OT: dogs: 57.2%, cats: 12.2%, the most we can say is it is an interesting trend.”

When I asked about whether there really is a 1:1 association—that is, does five times the oxytocin measured really mean five times the love?—Zak responded, “I’m always loathe to make the 1:1 mapping from any neurologic signal to a behavior. I think we can say dogs in our sample are more attached to their humans than were the cats, but variance is high in dogs and cats for many reasons.”

do dogs love us

Is the proof solely in the oxytocin?

So, just what do we really know? I really appreciated Zak’s rapid responses and agree that there is an interesting trend here: The dogs in the mini-study were more attached to their humans than were the cats. I also agree that there is not necessarily a “1:1 mapping from any neurologic signal to a behavior.” Clearly, there must be much more research on a larger sample. Researchers need to test cats in a more familiar environment, and factor in the high variance Dr. Zak observed in both species. It’ll also be interesting to knowin what situations cats love us more than dogs and if there are gender differences. The list of questions seems endless, for there are numerous variables that we need to factor into comparative studies such as this. That’s what I find to be truly interesting in these sorts of projects.

Clearly, we need to be very cautious in concluding that dogs really love us five times, or however many times, more than cats do. Preconceptions prevail, available data do not prove this is a robust conclusion, and it’s not at all clear that the proof will lie solely in the oxytocin.

Stay tuned for more on this fascinating topic, because there is no doubt that researchers and others will weigh in in may different ways with a good deal of zeal.

[For more on the giant and misleading leap from “trend to proof,” please see Dr. Anne Fawcett’s “Who loves you more: your dog or your cat?“]

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal IntelligenceEmotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson).

Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible

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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is marcbekoff.com.