People Who Love Animals More Than People: Psychology Of Empathy

By Amy Gardner|Updated July 25, 2022

Do you tend to cry when an animal dies? Do you post angry comments about animals or pets getting sick or dying in a hot car, yet scroll by that story of the woman who died in a car accident? Have you considered (or maybe even purchased) equipment to video chat with your animals while you're at work? Have you had cross words with someone who you thought was treating their pet or another animal unjustly, or even felt hate toward them?

Do You Have More Questions About Empathy And Our Beloved Pets?

If so, you're not alone. Americans love their pets deeply. In fact, many Americans consider themselves to be animal lovers. We show it with birthday celebrations, extra space on the couch (or even the bed), and elaborate end-of-life rituals, including funerals and cremation urns.

Speaking of that, those of us who have lost pets are very familiar with the lengthy and painful grieving process. The stages of mourning for a deceased pet are real…and often just as intense as losing any other family member.

If you have recently lost a beloved pet, you might even need to talk to a therapist to help process your feelings. Feel free to reach out to one of our trained online therapists to assist you in getting through this difficult time. You can also search our database of over 20,000 licensed, experienced therapists.

But does it mean that we love animals more than humans? Is there something more complicated going on? Or do we just consider ourselves to simply be an animal lover?

Here's an in-depth look at all the answers as to why it sometimes feels like we love our dog or other animals more than our next-door neighbor.

The Weakest Among Us

Empathy is a complex emotion for us humans. This noun is defined as: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

In many ways, empathy seems to be disappearing from society. Because of the constant media barrage of violence, death, and despair, we are becoming increasingly desensitized to the suffering of other humans. So why is it so easy to generate empathy for suffering animals?

A recent study by criminologist Jack Levin reveals a possible answer that might surprise you, backed by science.

In this research study, the participants were asked to respond to a fake news story about a victim who was assaulted with a baseball bat, leaving them unconscious with several broken limbs. While the story was the same, it differed in one crucial detail: the identity of the victim, which was either a one-year-old baby, an adult human, a six-year-old dog, or a puppy.

Respondents showed the same level of empathy for the baby, the puppy, and the adult dog, but significantly less for the adult human being. Researchers concluded that this suggests that our empathy level is unrelated to species. Rather, it has to do with perceived helplessness and vulnerability. This can also relate to the human-animal bond many of us feel, as they are requiring our attention, help, and concern. Rescue societies also have this empathy heightened, in a case where horses or other animals may be deeply suffering.

The natural affection we feel for animals can be compared to the affection we feel for our children. We impulsively care for them and desire to help them because they are unable to help themselves easily. Our perception of adult humans is that they can easily speak up for their rights or defend themselves from danger. But that is not true of children and animals, who are completely at the mercy of others for shelter, food, and protection.

Children and animals both demonstrate an innocence that we feel compelled to protect. So, in fact, our increased empathy for dogs and cats likely has nothing to do with preferences for a certain species, and everything to do with our innate human desire to protect and nurture those who are innocent and helpless.

The next time you find your blood boiling over the latest news story about an abused dog (or an abused child), now you can better understand the reason. Another interesting fact that emerged from this study: female respondents were far likelier to show equal empathy for all four hypothetical victims.

But beyond our impulse to care for the helpless, what else is going on in our relationship with animals?

Unconditional Love

It's the truth. Many of us all yearn for unconditional love, and crave it.

Someone who loves us for who we are; who has zero expectations; who is always happy to see us, no matter how grumpy we may be feeling today; who can know us and communicate with us without ever needing to speak a word; with whom we can be completely honest with without fear of judgment. We crave unconditional love. In human relationships, this precious commodity can be difficult to find, and it stems from being kids.

But not with pets, as any animal lover will likely tell you.

It doesn't matter if your boss or another person yelled at you, your boyfriend broke up with you, your car broke down on the Interstate, have a lot on your plate, you’re struggling with questions about life and in search of answers, or you messed up your words in a big presentation. Your beloved pet is there for you. They are rubbing up against you, looking at you with those adoring eyes. Wagging their tail or purring contentedly. When you’re not home, they likely conduct a search (or several) for you, which can help you feel wanted and needed. The idea that we are loved regardless of our homes, the company we work at, the things we own or features of our house.

"Animals touch the most intimate parts of our hearts: our need to nurture and protect, our need for companionship and love."

Your dog or cat doesn't care whether you're skinny, rich, athletic, or popular. He or she just wants you: your presence, your affection, your voice, and your touch. And in this "dog-eat-dog" world (pun intended), that means everything. As a matter of fact, this unconditional love is so important to us that it can change our brain chemistry.

Spending time with a pet has been found to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and release chemicals that trigger relaxation even when there’s a lot on your plate. Overall, pet owners are just healthier (both physically and mentally) than those who don't own pets.

Some of us even like to talk to our pets, going so far as to confide in them about our problems, perhaps more so than we would with a person. We might ask them questions despite not getting any (verbal) answers in return. And you won't find a more supportive audience anywhere. No matter what you tell them, they won't judge you or your words. They'll continue to love you just as much as they did before. And unlike humans, you never have to worry that they might talk behind your back or betray your confidence.

And what about the social benefits of pet ownership or being an animal lover? We explore answers to this below.

Studies have found that pet owners and animal lovers are less likely to be lonely. Besides your pet's companionship, they also make it easier for you to connect with congenial humans. How many times have you made a new friend because they interacted with your lovable pet first?

Do You Have More Questions About Empathy And Our Beloved Pets?

They also help lonely people to discover a sense of meaning or purpose in their lives. Additionally, interactions with pets are a proven mood booster. When you think of the obvious benefits they provide, it's no wonder we love them so much.

But besides these benefits, some cultural influences are surrounding our love of pets.

Pet Adoration: Influences And Ironies

We love animals, sure. But do we love all animals equally?

If we analyze our feelings carefully, we find that most of our adoration of animals centers on dogs and cats. England and other parts of the UK might be an exception to this, with 1% of people owning a snake, making them one of the top pets in England and the UK. Additionally, we sometimes might feel empathy for certain large, charismatic wild animals such as elephants, dolphins, or lions. When we read about a lion or an elephant who is hunted and killed in the wild, our response is often one of anger, almost as much anger as hearing stories of abuse and neglect of dogs and cats.

But there is a basic irony about these feelings. The routine slaughter of animals for food (cattle, chickens, pigs, etc.) doesn't faze us nearly as much. How is it that one African lion brutally killed for sport elicits powerful empathy…while the 39 million cows and calves that are killed every year in slaughterhouses leaves us unmoved?

There are several psychological explanations as to why that might be.

First, we must account for the influence of pop culture. Take a moment or several to think about how many pet movies you likely watched as a kid. Lassie. Lady and the Tramp. Scooby-Doo. And probably many, many more. All of these media portrayals endow dogs and cats with human qualities. They talk to each other using verbal words as people would, indulge in dreams for the future, and fall in love just like we do. Popular culture has drilled it into us over generations that our pets are just like humans, and primed many of us to be animal lovers from a young age. And this cultural perception is not going to go away any time soon, as many people are members of animal fan pages, helping to give tips to each other and connect with any other author of the page who loves their furry friend as much as you do.

Our reverence for dogs and cats over other species could also be explained by something called "the collapse of compassion." This is the psychological principle which tells us that the more tragedy we see, the less we care. It's the answer as to why you may not feel any compassion for the millions of people living in extreme poverty, while the story of one child who has to live on the street with no medical care is likely to move you to want to help. But it does raise the question…if we only care about certain animals and living things, can we truly consider ourselves to be an animal lover?

Empathy: It's Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

Given all these considerations, it's easy to understand why some of us seem to prefer animals over humans. But the reality is a much bigger picture than we realize.

Animals touch the most intimate parts of our hearts: our need to nurture and protect, our need for companionship and love. These needs exist within most of us, are part of our nature, no matter what. But it seems that animals have a unique ability to bring them out in us. Dogs, cats, even lions, and monkeys inspire us to reveal these deep human needs, which we might otherwise keep hidden.

And there's nothing pathological about that. In fact, it proves that we have a deep capacity to love and care for others under the right circumstances.

Paradoxically, our love and care for animals free us to be human.

And that's a precious gift.

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