People have more empathy for abused puppies and dogs than they do for adult humans who have been abused, a new study suggests.
However, empathy for abused children was about the same as that for puppies and dogs, the study found.
Researchers surveyed 240 college students and asked them to read one of four versions of a fictional news article about a brutal beating. The wording in articles was the same, except for the identity of the victim, which was either: an infant, an adult in his 30s, a puppy or a 6-year old dog. Participants then rated their level of empathy for the victim.
Participants had higher levels of empathy for the abused child, puppy and dog than they did for the abused adult, the study found. [See 7 Surprising Health Benefits of Dog Ownership]
The researchers had hypothesized that younger victims would receive more empathy, regardless of species. Instead, they found "Age makes a difference for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims," the researchers wrote in their study abstract, which will be presented this week at the American Sociological Association meeting in New York.
"The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full-grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable, not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids," study researcher Jack Levin, a sociology and criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said in a statement.
"It appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves, while full-grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies," Levin said.
The researchers said they suspect they would find similar results if they looked at empathy levels for other abused pets, such as cats. "These are animals to which many individuals attribute human characteristics," Levin said.
Women in the study were more empathetic than men towards human and animal victims. Studies show that women are generally more empathetic than men, Levin said. "The reason may be partially biological, given the role of females in childbirth and childrearing activities," he said.
Because the new study involved only college-age students, it's not clear if the results apply to people who are significantly older or younger.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.