People Who Love Animals More Than People: Psychology Of Empathy

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Americans love their pets deeply, and many consider themselves to be animal lovers. But does getting more upset over animals than humans mean we love them more than people? Is there something wrong with us? In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look why it sometimes feels like we care more our pets more than our next-door neighbors.

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Dealing with the loss of a pet?

The weakest among us

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a complex emotion for us humans. This is the reason why it is important to understand the definition of empathy, which is “the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Because of the constant media barrage of violence, death, and despair, we are becoming increasingly desensitized to the suffering of other humans. Social media is also believed to be a large contributor to the growing lack of empathy for others. So why is it so easy to generate empathy for suffering animals?

A recent study by criminologist Jack Levin reveals a possible answer. The study’s 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 changed. It 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 require our attention, help, and concern. 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 easily help themselves. Our perception of adult humans is that they can easily speak up for their rights or defend themselves from danger. 


Pet adoration: Influences and ironies

If we analyze our feelings carefully, we often find that most of our adoration of animals centers on dogs and cats. Additionally, we sometimes might feel empathy for 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 tend to faze most of us nearly as much. There are several psychological explanations as to why that might be.

First, we must account for the influence of pop culture. Take a moment to think about how many pet movies you likely watched as a kid. Many of these media portrayals endow dogs and cats with human qualities. They sometimes 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. 

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 to why you may not feel any compassion for the millions of people living in extreme poverty, while the story of one child living on the street with no medical care is more likely to move you to want to help. 

The benefits animals bring

Our reasons for loving animals is not based just on empathy, however. The truth is, animals – particularly our pets – offer humans a variety of powerful benefits. 

Social benefits

Studies have determined that pet owners and animal lovers are less likely to be lonely. Pet ownership has been found to be associated with lower levels of social isolation and increased social support. 

Besides your pet's companionship, pets also make it easier for you to connect with congenial humans. People are more likely to approach and talk to someone who is walking a dog or at the dog park. Discussing your pets is also an easy conversation starter. 

Physical benefits

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. As mentioned, pets also increase social support, which has been found to improve cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune function. Overall, pet owners are just healthier (both physically and mentally) than those who don't own pets.

Mental and emotional benefits

Many of us all yearn for unconditional love. We want 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; who can know us and communicate with us without ever needing to speak a word; and with whom we can have no fear of judgment. We crave unconditional love. In human relationships, this precious commodity can be difficult to find, especially among adults. Pets, however, can help to fill this need. 

iStock/SDI Productions
Dealing with the loss of a pet?

Additionally, interactions with pets are a proven mood booster and a stress reducer. People with pets tend to have greater self-esteem and overall well-being. 

Losing a pet

Those of us who have lost pets may have experienced a painful grieving process. Many people consider their pets to be an important part of their family, and losing a pet can impact us as much as losing a human families.  If you have recently lost a beloved pet, you might even need to talk to a therapist to help process your feelings. 

In grief counseling, a professional counselor can help you work through your normal feelings of sorrow after loss, such as the loss of pet. Grief therapists may use different types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps patients learn how to reframe thoughts so they are more positive. CBT has been shown to produce considerable reductions in prolonged grief disorder.  It also has been shown to help reduce relapses in depressive symptoms.

When you are mourning, it may be difficult to make yourself get up and go to a counselor in-person. With online therapy, such as through BetterHelp, you can speak with a counselor from the comfort of your home, office, or anywhere you have an internet connection. Studies have found that online cognitive behavior therapy is just as effective as in-person, and may have some potential advantages, such as being able to contact your counselor at any preferred time. 


People love their pets for many reasons, and pets benefit our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Losing a pet can be just as hard as losing a human that you love. If you are grieving the loss of a pet, online counseling can help. 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 35,000 licensed, experienced therapists.
Receive compassionate guidance in love
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started