We’ve all seen them, those commercials that air for about four minutes describing pets who’ve been abandoned and left to suffer — I can hardly bear to watch them, and I’ve heard friends and family say the same thing. A study reported by HealthDay presented at the American Sociological Association in New York City back in August explains why.
240 study participants were randomly shown one of four made up news stories: one involving the beating of a 1-yr-old baby, another about a puppy being beaten, still another about an adult dog being beaten, and finally one about the mugging of a 30-something adult male.
The results were consistent: the stories about the baby, the puppy and the adult dog elicited more empathy from the group than the article about the adult male. That’s because we perceive (quite accurately, I must say) that children and animals are at the mercy of adult humans, who can be outrageously cruel. The study team leader said the results likely would have been the same if the stories would have been about cats instead of dogs, because pet owners attach human characteristics to pets.
I have no doubt the results of the study are accurate. When my mother had to be put into a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I took her dog to her several times. After the first visit, Heidi became the pet of the entire ward; she even evoked smiles from patients who wouldn’t acknowledge the presence of another human being.
In addition to eliciting empathy, a chemical reaction occurs in our brains after we play with our pets. A study released in May reveals that the feel good hormone oxytocin is released after petting our dogs and cats. Other studies have shown that the symbiotic relationship we have with our pet improves our immune systems. I think I’ll go pet mine now.
For more on the oxytocin study, click here.