Can Pets Fall In Love?

Any pet owner who's given their furry best friend a rawhide, a catnip toy, or the like will tell you their pets have absolutely been in love. But scientifically, can pets fall in love the same way humans fall in love?

The short answer is: yes.

The longer answer is: yes. Dogs more than cats, but we can't prove they "fall in love" romantically.

What is love, exactly?

First, let's define love. Webster's defines love as... (kidding, w're not going to do that to you). For this story, we're not talking about the "in love" that makes you declare "OMG, I'm in love with that cat costume." We mean the no-control-over-this, "viscerally happy " kind of in love.

Dog enjoying a bone
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Oxytocin and your pet

The thing that you don't have control over is a hormone called oxytocin, and pets have it too. It's released to encourage bonding, thus aiding in survival. Oxytocin is released equally for companionship love and romantic love (desire to mate). Animals can't verbally communicate their desires, so there's no way to know if pets experience romantic love.

Man with cat
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First, let's discuss pets' ability to love humans.

Based on research by neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak for a series on BBC2, titled "Cats v Dogs," dogs produce more oxytocin after playing with owners than cats do.

guy and his dog, golden retriever, nature
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The experiment consisted of 20 pet owner with their pets: 10 dogs and 10 cats. Zak took saliva samples from all of the participants, both shortly before and after playtime to measured oxytocin levels. While studies have already shown that both dogs and their owners release oxytocin while gazing into one another's eyes. Fewer studies have looked at cats.

Girl playing with Siamese kitten
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The results? On average, dogs were found to produce almost five times as much oxytocin than cats, with saliva levels rising by 57.2 percent for dogs and 12 percent for their feline counterparts.

For cat owners screaming at the screen "How dare you?!" right now, we'll admit it wasn't a conclusive study. New York Magazine was quick to point out the flaws and missing considerations in this experiment, suggesting the oxytocin levels likely had more to do with the stress of the laboratory than the ability to love. John Bradshaw, a University of Bristol scientist who studies animal behavior, argued "[W]e know that cats, being territorial animals, usually react badly to being taken out of their regular environment - while dogs on the other hand, usually stay relaxed provided their owners are there." Valid point.

Romantic dog - jack russell terrier
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Point is, regardless of the degree, pets can love their humans.

Now, can pets love each other?

Instagram is brimming with adorable pet couple accounts. But is this real, or something created by humans? According to Dr. Marc Bekoff, a researcher and former professor of animal behavior and behavioral ecology at University of Colorado, Boulder, it's sort of real. "If you define love as a long-term commitment — meaning they seek one another out when they're apart, they're happy when they're reunited, they protect one another, they feed one another, they raise their children together — then of course non-human animals love each other."

Cat pillow, dog blanket
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Broadly Magazine reports that dogs can also feel "the aches, pain, and anguish that humans are so adept at afflicting on their lovers," citing a time when wild coyote got rejected in a love relationship and moped around for days.

pug with sad eyes sitting at the table
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So, next time you suspect your pet is "in love" or "heartbroken," you're probably right.