Research Uncovers Why We Love Our Dogs Like Our Own Children

We’ve seen and heard many dog owners giving their dogs over-the-top TLC like they actually gave birth to them. As it turns out, this is a perfectly reasonable behavior. A recent study conducted by the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found out that dogs and babies light up the same areas of the human brain.

“Pets hold a special place in many people’s hearts and lives, and there is compelling evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that interacting with pets can be beneficial to the physical, social and emotional well-being of humans,” Lori Palley, research co-lead author, said in a press release.

The aim of the study is to look into the difference between human-pet bond and maternal-child bond. The subjects were 16 women with at least one child between 2 to 10 years old and a pet dog who has been with the family for 2 year, at least.

The study was divided in two sessions. The first leg of the session was conducted at the participants’ home. The second leg was held at MGH where they employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the blood flow and oxygen levels of the mothers’ brain. The mothers were laid under a scanner where they viewed alternating images of their own child and dog and then unfamiliar children and dogs.

The research team observed that brain areas relevant to emotion, affiliation, reward, visual processing and social activity showed increased activity upon seeing photos of their own child and dog.

“Several previous studies have found that levels of neurohormones like oxytocin – which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment – rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting,” the study posits.

There’s a slight difference though. The substantia nigra and ventral tegmental areas of the midbrain region, which are responsible for bond formation, were activated upon seeing images of their children. On the other hand, the fusiform gyrus, the brain area responsible for visual processing functions like facial recognition, displayed higher activity upon seeing dog photos than baby photos.

“We think the greater response of the fusiform gyrus to images of participants’ dogs may reflect the increased reliance on visual than verbal cues in human-animal communications,” says Luke Stoeckel, also co-lead author of the study.

We humans interact with dog through facial cues which may explain this slight difference in emotional response.

Personally, I’m just glad that there’s a neurological basis to my being a crazy dog lady.

Source: PLOS ONE, Mass General
Photo courtesy of Michael Baugh