For years, many pet owners have been accused of caring more about their animals than their fellow human beings.  Now, there's some research to back up that theory.  A recent study of 240 adults by Northeastern University in Boston revealed that people felt more empathy when told about a dog or a child suffering than they did about a fellow adult.  The results are not surprising, according to pet expert Trevor Page with the website  "When you lock eyes with a baby or an animal, your brain releases oxytocin, which is a chemical responsible for bonding and feelings of love," he tells KTRH.  "So I think this is an instinctual response."

Page explains that this phenomenon doesn't mean people care less about humans than animals, but shows the natural response to a victim that is seen as more vulnerable.  "You kind of lose some of the empathy when thinking about another adult, you might think they can handle it themselves or they're capable," he says. "But when you look at a dog you say here's this poor creature...there's a feeling of a need to protect from an instinctual level, and I think that's why we get so enamored with our animals."  The instinct isn't really about animals vs. humans, either.  The study found that people have similar reactions to a baby or child in distress.

Even the study's authors conclude that the age of the victim is a more important component than species when it comes to people's level of empathy.  Page says the level of people's empathy tends to increase based on the vulnerability of the victim.  "Everybody who is an animal lover including myself, when you see a dog in (distress) you just think if only I could do something to help, so that's very natural."  This phenomenon also may help explain why people often view their pets in human terms.  "When you take them in, they really do become like a human to you," says Page.  "I very much feel like my dog is my son, and love him in the same way."

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