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The Dog Mom’s Brain

When people ask me if I have kids, my standard answer is, “I have a dog.” My husband and I are the first to admit that we tend to treat our pup like a “real” child. He eats organic food. Our apartment is littered with ripped plush toys. We talk to him in stupid high-pitched voices. He spends almost all of his time with us, including sleeping and vacations. When he’s not with us he’s at a daycare center down the street — and I spend much of that time worrying about whether he’s OK. It’s probably not a full-blown separation anxiety disorder, but when we’re separate, I’m anxious.

On an intellectual level I understand that having a dog is not the same as having a human child. Still, what I feel for him has got to be something like maternal attachment. And a new brain-imaging study backs me up on this.

Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital scanned the brains of 14 women while they looked passively at photos of their young children, photos of their dogs, and photos of unfamiliar children and dogs.

As it turned out, many areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward processing — such as the amygdala, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, and dorsal putamen — were activated when mothers viewed their own children or dogs, but not when they viewed unfamiliar photos.

Of course, we don’t really need a fancy (and expensive) neuroimaging experiment to demonstrate how much dogs mean to their people. Two-thirds of American households have pets, and we spend a whopping $58 billion a year to take care of them. Upon losing a pet many people experience intense grief, similar to losing a close friend or family member. And dogs, too, show attachment behaviors toward their caretakers just as human children do.

Still, the imaging results add some interesting nuance to the dog-human relationship. For example, a brain region known as the fusiform gyrus was activated more when mothers looked at their dogs then when they looked at their kids. This might be because the area is involved in face processing. “Given the primacy of language for human-human communication,” the authors write, “facial cues may be a more central communication device for dog-human interaction.”

Conversely, two areas in the midbrain — the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area — were active when mothers looked at their children but not when they looked at their pups. These brain areas are lousy with dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin, chemicals involved in reward and affiliation. This could mean that these areas are crucial for forming pair bonds within our own species, but not so relevant for the bonds we form with pets.

These results come with the usual caveats for brain imaging studies. It was a small sample of only women, and the brain snapshots were taken at just one point in time. Nevertheless, I think studies like these offer important counter-points to what I see as a growing trend of poking fun at pet-human bonds (even by pet owners themselves).

No, I don’t personally endorse doggie birthday parties, 22-karat gold leafed food bowls, or even pet chemotherapy. But neither do I begrudge those who do. Dogs may not be children, but they’re still our babies.

26 thoughts on “The Dog Mom’s Brain

  1. Thanks, Virginia.

    What would be even more fascinating, to me, would be equivalent brain scans of what is happening inside the dogs’ brains when they look at their human “parents”/owners. Presumably we would see activity associated with the social behaviors involving their own kind, but would we see patterns like those when pups look at their mothers? Or like when dogs look at other pack mates?

    It’s easy for us to see how our relationships to pets is rooted in our emotional attachments to children. It’s much harder to truly understand how that relationship is constructed in the minds of our pets.

  2. Really interesting story, Ginny!

    I think what we really need to know though is whether your brain lights up in similar ways when you look at your dog as mine does when I look at my kid. That is, all the women in the study had children, so we don’t know if their neural reactions to their pets were just an example of, well, mommy brain.

    (I also want to ask about the difference between reactions to pet faces before and after having a pet of one’s own, but I guess the study was comparing reactions to familiar and unfamiliar pet faces so you can’t quite get at that. Regardless, it suggests that maybe there really is neuroscience behind the idea of getting a dog as a “practice” kid!)

  3. Ah ha! Just as I suspected. I’m one who makes fun of myself regularly for the way I treat my dogs (I spend so many of my writing hours daily with them around me—I want them to be happy!) but I know my loving feelings are big and real and I do allow them to drive me. Yay for a little bit of brain science showing us what’s going on in there.

  4. nancy brownlee – grr! why does everything of value have to be compared to having children? not everyone wants children, not everyone can have children, why does that invalidate emotional feelings of love and compassion towards the other living, breathing creatures that share our lives? To call dogsjust “child substitutes” arrogantly assumes we are just settling for something less. stop judging.

  5. The book, How Dogs Love Us, by neuroscientist, Gregory Berns demonstrates how the dog’s brain looks when it feels love for it’s guardian with use of an MRI. It’s a great book, I read it in one sitting.

  6. If anyone is interested, I just found out that Dean Koontz, the famous author and ardent dog lover, has written a book which will give 100% of the proceeds to the charity Canie Companions for Independence, which provides assistance dogs for people with disabilities. The book is called “Ask Anna” written in first-person by his golden retriever, who gives other dogs advice about how to handle their owners. It is a very cute way of informing owners how to understand their dogs. And this is the first time I have known an author to give the whole 100% of the proceeds to charity – no deductions, no administrative costs, no question – he loves dogs! Anyway, google it and think about buying the book.

  7. you might change your mind about chemotherapy if your dog needed it. (depending on type of cancer, stage, prognosis, etc.) dogs do not usually get the horrible side effects that humans get, and it may prolong your dog’s life significantly, without upsetting the quality of life.

  8. Virginia, I’m glad to see you have a new puppy. Aussies have a wonderful knack of looking at you and making you think they understand everything you say. I sure miss mine. Today has been 16 weeks since he passed on.

    I don’t think of my dogs as babies, but I sure think of them as companions. Once I retired it was almost 24/7, and I’m glad I got to (and get to) spend so much time with them for the last few years of their lives.

    I think there is something about the mom brain, where you sleep half-way, ready to wake up at the first sound and take care of them, or you wake up and the first thing on your mind is “where is he? how is he?” Some mornings when I’m half awake I have those thoughts before I realize he’s gone.

    I still have an older dog (12 yrs 10 months) and I probably wouldn’t put him through chemo at this point in his life. With a younger one, I would consider the odds of recovery, and whether or not I could afford it. One of my neighbors had it done on their dog, and she didn’t survive more than a few months anyway.

  9. Agree with the previous poster that not all of us want children. Frankly, they give me hives. My pugs do have birthday parties and play dates and wardrobes. They also have health insurance and the best food I can make them. They have a blog even. And I love them more than I ever thought possible. While I’m glad science is catching up to what we dog people have known for years, I don’t need their validation to make me feel ok for loving and caring for my dogs.
    Chemo is expensive and isn’t optimal for all situations. However, it can be a lifesaver. If cost is a concern (and it is for nearly all of us), consider getting pet insurance. Good pet insurance. Google pet insurance review for a very clear explanation and comparison of companies and plans. Insurance can reduce the chance that lack of money will mean death for your pet. I will never not have insurance for my pets. I think it is the responsible thing to do for pet owners who don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on pet care.

  10. Yes, our dogs are “our babies” and enrich our lives.
    We do know that some people just have no “dog sense”.
    Pity for them.

  11. I’ve always had dogs at my family home and I ‘liked’ them very much. I specially liked big dogs like German Shepherds. However, a few years ago my wife decide to have Chihuahuas, so these little guys started living most of the time inside our house, and I noticed that they spent most of their time accompanying me in my home-office work, especially early or late at night. Then, this year we had to face breast cancer of one of our two human daughters, so my wife had to move with her to another city to accompany in her treatment. In my solitude, the little dogs became more than my friends. They became my company all the time and the ones with whom I could cry and pray together. They changed my life, especially little Lola who had several health problems and was with me during the eight months when the hardest part of my daughter’s treatment took place… Lola died the week my daughter finished her chemo/radio therapy, and I have cried and missed her since then. However, the other three Chihuahuas, who were also with me all this time, continue coming down to my office before sunrise, and going to bed with me after midnight. Zara, one of them was born on my 60th birthday, so we do celebrate our birthdays together, and she always sleep with her head lying on my arm; MIka is the one who makes us laugh all the time and was Lola therapist; and Greta is the guardian and our protector. So my message is: yes, dogs or other animals, but especially dogs, can become our children depending on the circumstances, which reflect our state of mind and soul. These little beings and the situation we went through changed my life and the way I perceive animals. Finally, I have become aware of that saying: “Be the person your dog thinks you are”…

  12. Hi from Italy Virginia I’m POGO I’m a P.E.B. Professional Educator of Bipeds I’ve rescued two of them and it has been very hard for a puppy to train two bipeds at the same time but I teached them they must look at me and they learned a lot of things. For example my not furry biped now cuddles me enough for my (excessive) needs. The furry one (furry almost anywhere but not on the head) was a very difficult problem but after I teached him to bring me any Sunday to a Leaning Belltower not so far from my couch where I find entire packs of bipeds called “tourists” who as well as they see me they stop pushing Belltower and start fondling me. It could be interesting a study on neuroimaging OF THEM they never met me before and they immediately pet me as a family dog hi Virginia POGO.
    PS they are strange animals the Bipeds.

  13. One time, I asked my husband what he would do if our dog’s legs no longer worked and his answer, “get our dog a doggie wheelchair.”

  14. Karen Degiulio, what’s being said is that caring for pets is not the same as caring for human children — the commitments, time spent and love needed don’t even come CLOSE. I’ve been on both sides of this equation and I can honestly say there is no comparison. Of course you love your pets and are an excellent mom to them — some people aren’t and I know we’re in agreement about how awful we feel about that. Animal suffering of any kind breaks my heart. Big GRRRRR! As does human suffering.

    That being said, all I want you to think about is when someone tells you that taking care of human kids is not the same as animal kids, it’s meant from experience and not a degrading comment to you. Just like I have no idea what it’s like to be a neurosurgeon, a bartender or an accountant: people who haven’t raised human kids have no idea what it’s about — anywhere from the amount of love your heart can hold or the amount of patience that it takes (nieces and nephews don’t give you a clue).

    I write this with compassion towards you and others who feel the same as you — with all due respect, please take it that way. I’ve been fortunate to be a mom to human kids and that’s what I’ve always wanted. Not everyone does and I respect that. What works for my family doesn’t work for others.

    I’m sad when I hear of people having trouble having kids when it’s what they want. That’s heartbreaking. I’ve had more miscarriages than I’ve had kids so I have a little insight into this but nowhere near what someone who hasn’t been able to carry a pregnancy would know about.

    Hugs and love to you.

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