Can You Love A Dog As Much As You Love Your Baby?

Harvard’s study on moms with dog babies says YES, you can!

By Brian Reynolds

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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? 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.

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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.

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The study results were eye opening

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.

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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.”

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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. Dog owners are very fond of their canine companions, and now there’s proof that they are more to us than just companions–so maybe there is justification in calling dog owners “pet parents.” Wear that pup-filled Baby Bjorn with pride!

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Read the study in its entirety in the Harvard Gazette.