By Dr. Mercola
If you were to read a news story about a battered 1-year-old child, puppy, adult dog or man in his 30s, who would you feel the most sorry for?
If you’re like most people who participated in a recent study, presented in New York City at the American Sociological Association's 108th Annual Meeting,1 the child will win over the most empathy.
This was followed very closely by the puppy and then the full-grown dog. In last place is the 30-year-old male, to whom the participants felt the least empathy.
The finding confirms the depth of feeling that pet owners already know, and once again highlights the important place that companion animals have in many people’s lives.
The Most Vulnerable Garner the Most Empathy
As for why puppies and children (who received such similar levels of empathy that the difference was considered statistically insignificant) received more empathy than an adult human, it’s likely because the younger age, regardless of species, was seen as more vulnerable.
The adult dogs were regarded largely in the same light as the puppies -- vulnerable and dependent on others for protection. Said one of the study’s authors:2
"Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering. Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component.
The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids."
Owner-Dog Relationships Similar to Parent-Child Relationships
That many feel nearly as much empathy for battered dogs as they do battered children makes sense in light of another recent study that found similarities between owner-dog relationships and parent-child relationships.3
This included using the owner as a secure base for interacting with the environment, with researchers concluding that the owner’s presence was important in order for the dog to behave in a confident manner. They reported:
“Our study is the first to provide evidence for an owner-specific secure base effect in dogs that extends from attachment tests to other areas of dogs' lives and also manifests itself in cognitive testing – thereby confirming the remarkable similarity between the secure base effect in dogs and in human children.”
Pets Provide Unconditional Love, Companionship that Is Difficult to Surpass
Owning a pet is a mutually beneficial relationship because pets provide unconditional love in return for your care, providing a sense of friendship and comfort in a way that is unmatched, sometimes even by humans. This makes strong feelings of empathy toward animals almost instinctual.
For the elderly, this companionship can mean the difference between social isolation and social connectedness, as owning a dog not only increased the amount of activity among the elderly, with dog owners taking twice as many daily walks than non-owners, but also increased social interactions through casual conversations that occurred during daily walks. Elderly dog owners also report being more satisfied with their social, physical and emotional states.4
Singles, as well as those who are widowed, divorced or separated, are increasingly adopting pets because they provide love and a sense of family.5 Couples who own pets, too, report being less stressed by conflicts and recovering quicker when conflicts occur. Pet-owning couples also reported more signs of happiness and sociability than non pet-owning couples.6 Even children benefit from owning pets, as this has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem as well as an ability to function better emotionally in kids.7
American Heart Association Confirms Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a statement that owning a pet, particularly a dog, may reduce your risk of heart disease.8 The conclusion came following a review of dozens of studies that showed pet owners were in better health than non-pet owners. Highlights of the research included:9
- People with dogs engaged in more walking and more physical activity, and were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity
- Pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients
- Owning a pet is linked with lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity
- Pets can have a positive effect on your body’s reaction to stress, including a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline-like hormone release when a pet is present
The researchers concluded:
“Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with decreased CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk … [and] may have some causal role in reducing CVD risk.”
12 Uncommon Facts About Dogs
If you think you know all there is to know about your favorite furry canine think again. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard at least a handful of these dozen uncommon facts about dogs.
What to Consider Before Adopting a Pet
Owning a pet is a big commitment that comes with considerable demands, so if you are thinking about adding a pet to your family, or if you’re a pet owner already, you can find a guide for bringing home a new dog or cat, along with a treasure trove of additional pet ownership information, at Mercola Healthy Pets. For instance, new pets may be much more needy than you initially expect, and you will need to spend some time pet-proofing your home prior to your new pet’s arrival.
Other important (but often overlooked) decisions, such as who will take care of nail trims, cleaning the litter box or letting the dog out in the middle of the night, should also be discussed ahead of time.
Every day at Mercola Healthy Pets, Dr. Karen Becker shares her passion for the benefits of proactive, integrative and wellness-oriented pet healthcare, and the value of alternative therapies that are rarely, if ever, discussed in the conventional veterinary community. Now, countless animal lovers across the globe are learning about the foundations of pet health and becoming empowered to take the best possible care of their pets, and I urge you to join them if you’re a pet owner, too.