Several years ago a noted pediatrician, Dr. Rene Spitz, became involved in the care of orphan infants. He found that in those orphanages where babies received little tender loving care but had all their survival needs attended to (clean diapers, baths, regular feedings, etc.), outbreaks of disease were common. Also, the babies didn’t seem to thrive and some even developed a wasting disease known as marasmus.
Today, we have an analogous condition with may commercial animal breeding facilities. Young kittens that are separated from their mothers, even if given plenty of food and warm quarters, don’t thrive as well and are more likely to succumb to diseases. Now we are beginning to understand this phenomenon. Part of the answer is related to the creature’s heart.
When an animal is petted or groomed or licked by a companion, there is a dramatic decrease in heart rate. When you stroke a cat, provided she’s not too excited, her heart rate slows down. This means that the parasympathetic side of the autonomic (vegetative or autonomic visceral nervous system) has been activated. Your touch can evoke such profound changes in the animal’s physiology. These changes too must be pleasurable for a socialized cat (one who is not afraid of you), since the cat will approach and solicit such a physical contact and social/tactile stimulation. (And we all need to get our strokes too!)
When the parasympathetic system is stimulated, an infant animal relaxes, begins to secrete more digestive juices, and its alimentary system is activated to absorb food. Maternal deprivation, or lack of TLC, can therefore be detrimental to survival.
If food isn’t properly assimilated in a young animal, susceptibility to disease increases. It would seem that these animals are born with two physiological dependencies that the mother normally rectifies by giving affection. Food and a warm bed simply aren’t enough.
Dr. Spitz instituted a program of frequent cuddling for the orphaned crib-bound infants, and their health and growth rates immediately improved.
This physiological need for TLC also has another important consequence: attachment. The inborn physiological dependence upon the mother leads to attachment (since TLC is pleasant and rewarding), which in turn leads to an emotional or psychological dependence (upon the mother, foster parent, or caretaker).
Through this attachment process, imprinting or socialization takes place and an enduring bond is formed. This bond persists even in adult animals, and this is why socialized cats enjoy being groomed and petted. It is through touch that humans and animals can appreciate and share a depth of nonverbal communication that transcends the species barrier, so they can reaffirm their kinship.
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