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Pets

The Neurobiological Basis of Human-Pet Relationships

People who have pets often refer to themselves as “pet parents,” but how closely does the relationship between people and their non-human companions mirror the parent-child relationship? A study done by a group of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers looked at young mothers who also had dogs but here at ThirdAge we’re betting that a study of older “pet parents” would yield similar results. The MGH team investigated differences in how important brain structures are activated when women view images of their children and of their own dogs. The report was published in October 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

A release from MGH quotes co-lead author of the report Lori Palley, DVM, of the MGH Center for Comparative Medicine as saying, “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. 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 release notes that in order to compare patterns of brain activation involved with the human-pet bond with those elicited by the maternal-child bond, the study enrolled a group of women with at least one child aged 2 to 10 years old and one pet dog that had been in the household for two years or longer. Participation consisted of two sessions, the first being a home visit during which participants completed several questionnaires, including ones regarding their relationships with both their child and pet dog. The participants’ dog and child were also photographed in each participants’ home.

The second session took place at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH, where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – which indicates levels of activation in specific brain structures by detecting changes in blood flow and oxygen levels – was performed as participants lay in a scanner and viewed a series of photographs. The photos included images of each participant’s own child and own dog alternating with those of an unfamiliar child and dog belonging to another study participant. After the scanning session, each participant completed additional assessments, including an image recognition test to confirm she had paid close attention to photos presented during scanning, and rated several images from each category shown during the session on factors relating to pleasantness and excitement.

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