A robotic "pet" can provide some of the health benefits of the flesh-and-fur variety, but interactions didn't provoke the oxytocin response, according to a University of Missouri study.
U.S. News & World Report says
In a recent study at the University of Missouri-Columbia, for example, levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped among adults who, for several minutes, petted AIBO, Sony's dog-shaped robot that responds when stroked, chases a ball, and perks up when it hears a familiar voice. That's the same reaction live dogs get. Unlike real dogs, though, AIBO didn't prompt increases in "good" body chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins.
AIBO is that Sony toy that can learn voice commands and seems to respond to you. I got my mom a knockoff one Christmas, but she never used it.
Researchers at Purdue gave kids and people living in assisted living facilities AIBOs; the kids thought it was a decent pet, while the seniors felt less depressed and lonely.
It's interesting that the Missouri study didn't find an increase in oxytocin. Humans seem to be able to squirt out stress hormones without external stimuli. Just thinking about an argument can raise our blood pressure. Can we not similarly automatically invoke the calming chemicals? This study indicates we don't.
Other researchers have shown an increase oytocin when we stroke furry animals. I assumed it was a response to the warmth and softness. But maybe there needs to be face or eye contact to get that love juice going. Which would make sense, because babies learn the oxytocin response as they look into their mothers' faces.
It would be interesting to test whether oxytocin production is higher when we stroke animals that make eye contact, for example a dog or cat versus a bunny or hamster.