Great ben­e­fits to those fuzzy feel­ings

Own­ing a pet or just watch­ing a video of one can lower blood pres­sure and el­e­vate moods.

Los Angeles Times - - THE PETS ISSUE - By Alene Daw­son home@latimes.com

Does own­ing a pet or even watch­ing those ubiq­ui­tous YouTube an­i­mal videos make us more em­pa­thetic? Ap­par­ently so. Lov­ing those crea­tures may un­lock ways to make you less lonely and make the world a bet­ter place.

“In­ter­act­ing with a pet can in­crease oxy­tocin, beta-en­dor­phin and dopamine lev­els as well as re­duce cor­ti­sol lev­els — pow­er­ful neu­ro­chem­i­cals that can lower our blood pres­sure and make us feel hap­pier, bet­ter and more re­laxed,” says Re­becca A. John­son, a pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Re­search Cen­ter for Hu­man-An­i­mal In­ter­ac­tion at the Univer­sity of Mis­souri Col­lege of Vet­eri­nary Medicine. Oxy­tocin, of­ten called the “love” or “trust” hor­mone be­cause of the feel­ings it trig­gers when we kiss or fall in love, also pro­motes so­cial bond­ing.

And a pos­i­tive re­sponse can oc­cur by just look­ing at the an­i­mal, John­son says. Does that in­clude watch­ing cute an­i­mal videos?

“Yes,” says neu­roe­conomist Paul Zak, a pro­fes­sor at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Univer­sity. “Watch­ing YouTube videos about an­i­mals can in­duce oxy­tocin re­lease caus­ing us to en­gage in help­ing an­i­mals or peo­ple.”

Ro­man Krznaric, au­thor of “Em­pa­thy: Why It Mat­ters, and How to Get It,” agrees. Em­pa­thy can come from so-cute-your-cheeks-hurt-from-smil­ing pet videos and from those of suf­fer­ing fac­tory-farm an­i­mals.

“How we treat oth­ers, give more rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to oth­ers, whether it’s peo­ple, an­i­mals or robots, de­pends on the kind of mind you per­ceive they have. We de­velop em­pa­thy with an­i­mals we per­ceive as hav­ing sim­i­lar emo­tional ranges or be­hav­iors,” says Kurt Gray, an as­sis­tant psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

An in­di­vid­ual an­i­mal story lets us put our­selves in their “shoes,” says Ni­cholas Ep­ley, a pro­fes­sor of be­hav­ioral science at the Univer­sity of Chicago. “You feel the pain of a mother ele­phant try­ing to res­cue her baby from a well, but when you hear that 5,000 ele­phants are slaugh­tered you don’t feel 5,000 pangs of pain.”

But does our em­pa­thy for YouTube an­i­mals or those fea­tured on TV spots for an­i­mal wel­fare make us nicer to them or be­come ve­gan? “Our em­pa­thy tends to spike while or im­me­di­ately af­ter see­ing these videos,” Ep­ley says.

Krznaric uses car­ing for pets as a “school for em­pa­thy” with his 6-year-old twins. “They’re too young to be ex­posed to videos show­ing ter­ri­ble things hap­pen­ing to fac­tory-farmed an­i­mals. But at the zoo or while watch­ing other kinds of an­i­mal videos, I might ask them what they think it’s like to be an an­i­mal in a cage … to imag­ine what it’s like to be a cat stuck out in the rain … to be a home­less per­son stuck out on the rain?”

Most peo­ple have the ca­pac­ity to em­pathize, Krznaric says, and it’s im­por­tant to “ex­tend our em­pa­thetic imag­i­na­tion to all crea­tures.”

Ch­eryl A. Guer­rero L.A. Times

IN­TER­ACT­ING with pets can trig­ger the same hor­mone as does fall­ing in love.

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