Study Explains Why We Treat Our Pets Like Children

008_Dogs_MollyCrannaPhotographed by Molly Cranna.
Take one trip to Prospect Park and you'll see dog owners fawning over their precious little "fluffy pumpkins." (Okay, that one was me). Now, a study suggests we're not just imagining the strength of those bonds we form with our pets: Research shows that mothers may actually perceive their pets and their kids in similar ways.
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For the small study, published last week in PLoS ONE, 14 women took several questionnaires that assessed their levels of attachment and parental stress. Their children and dogs were also photographed. Later, the women's brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Specifically, the researchers looked at the level of activity in areas associated with reward, emotion, and face processing while the participants were shown images of their child, other children, their dog, and other dogs. After that, participants were shown the images again and were asked to rate them on levels of emotional value.
Results showed that the participants had higher levels of brain activation for their own children compared to other children (phew). Interestingly, participants showed similar levels of activation for their kids and their dogs; there was significant (but not quite identical) overlap in the reward and emotional processing for both. But, when looking at their kids, participants showed activation in a few key reward areas (the ventral tegmental area and substantia nigra) that didn't activate as much when they looked at the dogs. And, the self-reported measures backed up this bias towards one's own "family" — participants reported feeling more "pleasantness" and "excitement" for their own children and dogs compared to others.
It's worth noting that this was a very small study without a control group; all participants were (mostly white, married) women with both kids and dogs. But, the results here are similar to previous studies that examined patterns of brain activation when people viewed pictures of their romantic partners and friends compared to people with whom they were unfamiliar. All in all, it looks like there might be more truth to the "fur baby" nickname than we'd like.
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