In part two of this series (see “Physical touch is a need, not a want” in the December 2021 issue), I promised to explore the biochemistry of touch and make the case for us not withdrawing from this sense—for pets and people—but instead using it as a powerful tool for the health and happiness of our patients, clients, and team members.
While we have known touch comforts a baby or grieving family member, and can calm an animal with fear, anxiety, and stress, it’s been a relatively short period of time since science began to examine of how touch matters at a biochemical level.
For example, the uterine-contracting properties of oxytocin were discovered by British pharmacologist Henry Halet Dale in 1906, and its milk ejection property was discovered by Ott and Scott in 1910. Oxytocin’s molecular structure wasn’t discovered until 1952. Besides the physiological actions of oxytocin (uterine contraction, milk ejection, human sexual response) it also has powerful psychological actions (bonding, anti-depressant, empathy, social behavior). It’s the psychological properties I’ll address here.
Touch is almost magical in its proven properties. Touch on the skin can reduce heartrate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels—all factors related to stress. Bernie Siegel, MD, author of Love, Medicine & Miracles, says, “Touch heals and cortisol kills.”
Touch facilitates the release of oxytocin, a hormone providing sensation of calm, relaxation, joy, and affectionate behavior. As these feel-good, nurturing, natural biochemicals are released, we should expect the individual, whether an animal or a human, to seek out situations to enable these events.
Every time we hug a family member (two- or four-legged), oxytocin is released in our body giving us a “feel good” sensation some seek with excessive alcohol, drugs, gambling, or sex.
Studies show humans, as well as animals, seek to avoid pain and find pleasure. The beauty of the human-animal bond is we can do it together. However, on this lifelong path, oxytocin appears to reinforce our motivation to seek and maintain contact with others. Researcher Laura Crucianelli, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Brain, Body, and Self Lab in the Department of Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, says this contact assists in the development of humans’ socially-oriented brains. Ironically, oxytocin also plays a vital role in the relationship we have with ourselves. Humans, dogs, cats, horses, cattle—the list goes on—are all social species.
Touch is the first sense to develop (think of puppies; their eyes and ears do not open for a couple of weeks), and is mediated by the skin, our largest organ and the most complex source of sensory input to the brain. The skin not only reports touch, but also pain, temperature, and pressure.
Many neuroscientists and psychologists believe people have a dedicated system just for the perception of social, affective touch, distinct from the one we use to touch objects. This system seems to be able to selectively recognize slow, caress-like touch and feel love, even when delivered by someone not known to the beneficiary of the tactility.
It makes one wonder what benefit for pet and pet professional is achieved in an exam room when abrupt movements are replaced with slower, more caressing movements. These are both designed to achieve the same thing: a great physical exam, yes, but also a pet that feels calm, and not freaked out. I don’t know of any science to support my personal belief this same system could be activated between pet, pet parent, and pet caregiver.
What’s important to all of us, birth to earth, is not only the amount of touch we receive, but also its nature and quality. People and pets in abusive homes can receive a lot of physical contact, just not the right kind. In a recent study, Crucianelli and her colleagues showed infants as young as 12 months are able to detect the way their mothers touch them during play time or while sharing a book together.
Importantly, the researchers found mothers’ ability to understand their infants’ needs translated into kind of a tactile language; for example, those mothers who were less aligned or responsive to their babies also tended to use more rough and restrictive touch. Infants also tended to reciprocate; in that they were more likely to use aggressive touch toward their mothers if this was the way they were touched.
How this translates to the animal world
This has me thinking: What about a veterinary healthcare professional who tends to be rough in their handling of animals? I think you know where I’m going here.
Does the rough handling of the animal make the pet more likely to respond more aggressively, thus escalating the, for lack of a better term, battle? This is one of the reasons with Fear Free we replaced “restraint” with “gentle control,” which is designed to protect the pet.
“The basic tenet of Fear Free veterinary care is communicating with the pet to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, stress (FAS), and pain, and to build and enhance positive relationships and outcomes through gentle control and a considerate approach to all interactions,” says Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM (BM), head of research at Fear Free.
“The veterinary examination begins with gentle, non-invasive touch, beginning with the location, positioning, and part of the body the pet offers, prefers, or most readily accepts, and rewarding the association.
“When the pet is comfortable, the veterinarian calmly, smoothly, and gently glides the hand across the body and through the procedures starting with the least sensitive and intense and gradually proceeding along a gradient to more sensitive and intense, while pausing and tempering what they are doing based on how the pet is reacting. For pet health care, the veterinarian would start with the least stressful and comfortable procedure and gradually progressing to what cause the most stressful or uncomfortable.”
Dr. Landsberg says this approach, known as the gradient of touch, should also apply to interactions with our own pets, as to who, when, where, how, and for how long we touch, caress or hug, to ensure all physical contact is positive, comforting, and enjoyable for all.
The pandemic gave us a glimpse of what life would look like without touch. The fear of the other, of closeness, contamination, of touch, has allowed many of us to realize how much we miss spontaneous hugs, hearty handshakes, taps on the shoulder, or hand lingering on an arm of someone you know needs it. Tellingly, most people mention “hugging my loved ones” as one of the first things they wanted to do once the pandemic was over.
Some researchers have suggested technology could enhance our physical connection with others, prompting new kinds of impersonal tactile connections via hug blankets, kissing screens, caressing/stimulating devices, and even robotic dogs. Some studies have shown robotic pets are just as beneficial in preventing loneliness, particularly among seniors.
Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, today’s robotic pets employ motion sensors to stimulate surprisingly realistic behaviors. They purr, wag their tails, blink, vocalize, and respond when petted.
While these inventions could serve touch-deprived people, such as the elderly, those who live alone, children in orphanages, or the increasing number of people who are always traveling and seldom home, or work on opposite ends of the country or globe, nothing can compare with the magic of a physically intimate moment with someone: person, or pet. This is why in modern veterinary medicine, we need the combination of high-tech and high-touch.
Scientists can now recognize the whole physiological chain of events from sensory input to neurohormone release. A touch can help release prolactin, which stimulates social bonding, and oxytocin, which facilitates tactile contact.
While touch can be complicated between adults, with pets, the process of intimacy seems so blessedly easy. Society puts so much pressure on us and places so much emphasis on individuality that, in contrast, pets make it possible to love unconditionally and in abundance.
Narda G. Robinson, DO, DVM, MS, FAAMA, is a leading authority on scientific integrative medicine from a One Health perspective, president and CEO of CuraCore, and author of Canine Medical Massage. She says, “Gentle, informed myofascial palpation, working with an animal who is calm and unafraid, adds invaluable insights into the problems that individual is experiencing, both physically and emotionally. Tension in the body, whether generalized or regional, can draw a veterinarian’s attention to areas of pain and discomfort that otherwise remain unrecognized and untreated.”
Dr. Robinson continues, “Educating clients on the role of touch, not only as part of the bonding process, but also in terms of recognizes problems early, facilitates a bond between the client, patient, and veterinarian. In practices that include medical acupuncture, massage, and other physical medicine approaches, the practitioner relies heavily on the findings from hands-on palpation to determine where and how to treat the animal.
“Furthermore, educating motivated clients about simple, yet effective, massage techniques can help maintain the benefits of each treatment session and raise an alert when the client perceives something has changed, or the animal has become more sore.
“In that veterinary patients communicate so strongly with body language, it behooves veterinarians to learn not only to see, but to feel their patients as a central part of their evaluation process. Learning to perform that palpation in a non-threatening, almost massage-like manner, changes the veterinarian-patient relationship to a positive, bonding experience, instead of an adversarial one.”
Marty Becker, DVM, writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free, or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.