Many women claim that they love their dogs as if they were their children, and researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital put the claims of maternal bond to the test. Science Daily explained that it has become common for people to call themselves “pet parents,” so researchers examined the relationships between women and their dogs to see if they really do mirror the parent-child relationship.
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— Pet360 (@Pet360) December 14, 2013
The study was small, the researchers admitted, but their findings were compelling. They examined important areas of the brain and whether or not they were activated when women were shown images of their own dogs and their own children. The research is published in PLOS ONE, an open-access journal.
“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 wellbeing of humans,” veterinarian Lori Palley of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Comparative Medicine, co-lead author of the article, said. “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.”
Still, the research study, which involved a small group of women who had both a child (between two and ten-years-old) and a dog (that had lived with her for at least two years), indicated that the bond between a pet-loving woman and her dog isn’t actually the same as the bond she shares with a human child.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to examine the key ares of the brain involved with bonding. The women were shown a series of images while they were in the scanner. Photos included pictures of each woman’s own dog and own child as well as pictures of other participants’ children and dogs.
There were similarities between how their brains reacted to their own children and their own beloved dogs, the report explained, but there were significant differences. The women’s brains responded similarly to images of their own dogs and their own children in areas of the brain known to be tied to “emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction.”
The actual relationship between a woman and her dog might not feel same as a maternal bond though, even if the affection is there, the study suggests.
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A region in the brain known to be related to bond formation (the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area) was activated only when the women viewed images of their own children.
Interestingly, an area related to facial recognition actually showed more activation when the women saw their own dogs than when they saw their own children.
“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.” Dr. Luke Stoeckel, from the hospital’s Department of Psychiatry, explained.
The researchers hope tests to better understand the bonds between people and their dogs will include participants of both sexes, adoptive parents, and people with no children. In the meantime, tell us what you think of the research in the comments area below. Let us know if you think a woman can love a dog as though it were her child, and if you feel this bond can happen between any species, check out this adorable video.
[Photo via istolethetv on Flickr]