The term "pet parenting" has been on the rise for the past few years. But what does it mean to be a "pet parent" -- beyond occasionally having the urge to put your pug in a Baby Bjorn? It is obvious that all pet owners show some level of attachment to their animal companions but could being a "pet parent" also mean that you truly love your dog, perhaps even as much as you might love your child?
A study by a group of researchers from the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital sought to answer that question by comparing the brain scans of women looking at images of their child versus images of their dog. The results? Pretty surprising.
The study consisted of a small group of women who had (at least) one child aged 2-10, as well as a dog. In the first session the women were asked to answer several surveys about the relationship between their child and their pet. The researchers then photographed the child and pet at home. In the second session the participants viewed images of their own child and pet alternated with images of the child and pet of another participant.
While the women viewed these images their brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging. Amazingly, areas in the brain governing functions such as emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction all had similar levels of increased activity when participants viewed either their child or their dog.
Another region (substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area) known for bond formation only activated when images of the participant's child was shown, while the region of the brain involved with facial recognition and visual processing (fusiform gyrus) actually showed a higher response to images of the participant's dog rather than their child.
Luke Stoeckel from the MGH Department of Psychiatry and co-lead author of the study says, "Although this is a small study...the results suggest there is a common brain network important for pair-bond formation and maintenance that is activated when mothers viewed images of either their child or their dog."
While the study is on a small scale (only 16 participants) and needs to be replicated with a larger sample size to see if similar results will be found, it is interesting to note that a mother's brain does show similar responses to her child and her dog.
While we all know that dog owners are very fond of their four-legged friends, now there's real scientific proof that they are more to us than just companions. All signs point to something dog owners have known all along -- that we do indeed love our pets just as much as the rest of our family members. Maybe there is real justification in calling dog owners "pet parents" after all.
So next time you want to show your love for your pet, throw caution to the wind! Go ahead and strap on those bowties, pull on that doggy sweater, pick up those organic, gourmet dog treats and above all, wear that puppy-filled Baby Bjorn with pride!
Read the study in its entirety in the Harvard Gazette.
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