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Cats And Compassion

Nov 1, 2011 · Updated Aug 1, 2013 ·
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    "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated," Ghandi.

    The above quote may not just be a profound moral statement; it may also have a scientific basis to it. Researchers are discovering that cat and dog owners are not just compassionate toward their pets and other animals, but their cat and dog ownership helps to make them more compassionate to their fellow humans.

    Cat Owners, Cats and Compassion

    Dr. Nikola Taylor conducted a study to examine if owning cats and dogs made their owners more compassionate to humans. This study was "Empathy and Attitudes Toward Animals," published in the academic journal Anthrozoos. "The results showed that yes, there is definitely a link between human directed empathy and positive attitudes toward the treatment of animals. So if you are more animal welfare friendly, then you have more empathy toward humans. I would say animals do make us more compassionate," says Dr. Taylor.

    In another study "Attitude to Animals and Empathy: Comparing Animal Protection and General Community Samples" Dr. Taylor examined people who work in the animal welfare field and those who do not. Again, they found that animal welfare workers not only had higher empathy levels toward animals but also toward people compared to those that did not work in the field.

    Kids, Cats, and Compassion

    Dr. James Serpell, author of In the Company of Animals ,and Director of the Center for Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, has done studies with his colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Paul, on whether having a pet cat or dog as a child makes one more compassionate toward animals and humans as adults. Their results showed that those adults who had a strong relationship with their cat or dog as a child had a more humane attitude toward animals and humans as adults. "It appeared that those children that grew up with an animal that was important to them did change their perspective on animals (in a positive way) .That study also looked at compassion toward humans. Especially among male pet owning students empathy was increased relative to the ones that hadn't had much exposure to pets," says Dr. Serpell. Gender Differences

    When looking at many different characteristics of pet owners it turned out there were two that determined whether a pet owner would more likely be compassionate toward people. Dr. Taylor found a person's level of empathetic concern and their gender were the two which made a difference in a pet owner's concern for people. "Gender played a role in all our results. It also plays a role in the empathy research, and we found that females had higher levels of empathy," says Dr. Taylor.

    The reasons why Dr. Serpell's study showed that children who had a strong relationship with their pets had an increased level of empathy toward humans as adults were male had to do with basic levels of empathy among women. "The main reason for that was because women are more emphatic than men anyway so they always score higher than men on those types of evaluations and you get what's called a 'ceiling affect.' If all the women are scoring high it's difficult for them to score higher," says Dr. Serpell. While men usually have lower empathy scores so there is room for scores to be improved.

    Keys to Compassion

    Why does our love for cats turn into concern for people? "My own personal theory is that in order to know an animal is very different from knowing a human. We can talk to humans and we can ask a human about their experiences. When you live with a companion animal, you get the knack of getting inside their head, and you come to know your animal very well and it's all symbolically through gestures. I think that actually allows you to extend this ability to other humans so you are able to pick up on more human cues than you would be able to normally," says Dr. Taylor. She believes this gives us more of an empathetic ability, and pet owners then apply them to people.

    "You could argue that empathy is something that's inborn, it's something innate we have, but to the extent that it's developed depends on our experiences. The way that muscles develop in response to exercise, you could argue that our empathetic ability develops in response to exposure to different experiences of empathizing, and empathizing with another species enhances our ability to empathize with our own species," says Dr. Serpell.

    Compassion and Cats

    Do cats have unique characteristics which elicit empathy more than other pets, which may lead people toward being more compassionate to other people? "I do know that some studies show cats are good at triggering nurturing behaviors, parental sort of behaviors," says Dr. Serpell. Cats are roughly the same size as babies, are soft, have big eyes similar to babies and their purrs mimic the cooing of infants. "If the strongest empathetic relationship we have is between a parent and a child you could argue that cats could be a very powerful trigger for empathy," continued Dr. Serpell. He also noted that cats may have a stronger ability than dogs to elicit these types of responses.

    Long Range Effects

    What are the implications of cats helping to make cat owners more compassionate toward humans? Well hopefully, this will change the view of those who don't believe cats have any beneficial effects upon society, and more importantly, cats may help make us more compassionate toward our fellow humans which can only lead to the creation of a better world.


    Written by Brad Kollus
    Brad Kollus is an award winning Cat Writer specializing in the Feline-Human Bond. He lives with his wife Elizabeth, their son Dylan, and four cats, Scotty, Spanky, Lizzie, and Rosie in New Jersey.



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