It's no secret that people love their pets, but do they love their pets like they love their own children?
A new study by Massachusetts General Hospital has an answer to that: "yes." They discovered that the relationship between people and their pets is similar to the relationship between people and their children.
"Several previous studies have found that levels of neurohormones like oxytocin -- which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment -- rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting," says Lori Palley co-lead author of the report.
Researchers used a group of mothers with at least one child between the ages of 2 and 10. These mothers also owned one pet dog for at least two years. These mothers filled out surveys with questions about their relationships with both their children and dogs. Researchers also gathered photos of the children and dogs in question.
The mothers then lay inside an MRI scanner, which allowed researchers to measure activity in their brains. While researchers scanned the mothers, they showed them images of their children and their dog, along with images of the other participants' children and dogs. After the MRI session, each mother filled out another survey and rated images based on their reaction to them, such as excitement and pleasantness.
The research showed strong similarities in brain activity when the mothers saw images of their children and their pets. These areas of the brain were typically those responsible for emotion and visual processing. These areas were more active when mothers viewed images of their own children and dog, as opposed to when they viewed images of other children and dogs.
Interestingly enough, the fusiform gyrus part of people's brain responded more to images of their dogs than of their children. This part of the brain handles facial recognition. This suggests that the human-pet relationship is more based on visual indications than verbal ones, whereas the human-child relationship is a based on a combination of both.
"Although this is a small study that may not apply to other individuals, the results suggest there is a common brain network important for pair-bond formation and maintenance that is activated when mothers viewed images of either their child or their dog," says Luke Stoeckel, co-lead author of the study.
So don't worry, it's perfectly normal to refer to your pets as your babies.