© , , | ./-
Are People More Disturbed by Dog or Human
Inluence of Victim’s Species and Age
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Northeastern University, Boston,
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Northeastern University, Boston,
Department of Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado
This research examines whether people are more emotionally disturbed by reports of
non-human animal than human sufering or abuse. Two hundred and fty-six under-
graduates at a major northeastern university were asked to indicate their degree of
empathy for a brutally beaten human adult or child versus an adult dog or puppy,
as described in a ctitious news report. We hypothesized that the vulnerability of
victims—determined by their age and not species—would determine participants’
levels of distress and concern for them. The main efect for age but not for species was
signicant. We also found more empathy for victims who are human children, pup-
pies, and fully-grown dogs than for victims who are adult humans. Age makes a difer-
ence for empathy toward human victims, but not for dog victims. In addition, female
participants were signicantly more empathic toward all victims than were their male
empathy – emotional distress – vulnerability – sufering – victims – dogs – age
In the popular perception, media coverage of the abuse of non-human animals
appears to evoke greater public outrage than reports of comparable mistreat-
ment of human victims. When reports of non-human victims reach the media,
the attention they receive can seem to overshadow concern for the traumas
and tragedies that befall humans. For example, in February 2015, Harrison’s
Fund, a British charity that supports research for Duchenne muscular dystro-
phy, ran a fundraising campaign featuring two versions of the same ad. Both
contained text that read, “Would you give £5 to save Harrison from a slow, pain-
ful death?” One version featured a picture of the real Harrison Smith, an eight-
year-old boy diagnosed with Duchenne. The other featured a stock photo of a
dog. When the ads ran on ’s United Kingdom website with links to donate
to the charity, the one depicting the dog attracted twice as many clicks as the
one with the boy (230, compared to 111) (Lambert, 2015).
In addition, in 2014, after a pit bull dog mauled a four-year-old boy in
Phoenix, Arizona, leaving him with injuries requiring years of reconstructive
surgery, a social media campaign rallied a legal team and nancial support to
save the dog from euthanasia. Within a few weeks, a Facebook page dedicated
to Mickey the dog had more than 40,000 “likes,” while the page for the support
of the boy had barely 500 (Tang & Billeaud, 2014). Critics might point out that
Facebook “likes” depend on who shared the story and how, but this only proves
the point. Advocates for the dog could quickly leverage social media to reach a
wide audience of like-minded supporters.
Despite anecdotal evidence of apparent greater concern for non-human than
human victims, it would be wrong to assume that animal victims will always
elicit a greater degree of emotional distress and sympathy than will human
victims of violence. Scholars have noted our society’s inconsistent treatment
of non-human animals and how this ambivalence translates into widespread
indiference toward, if not approval of, their harm (Arluke & Sanders, 1996;
Herzog, 2010; Plous, 1993). Some people view non-human animals as property
and treat them like objects; from this perspective, their harm would inspire
little if any concern (Vollum et al., 2004).
Even if viewed as more than mere objects, the sufering of non-human ani-
mals still may not prompt as much concern as humans made to sufer similarly.
Of course, views on non-human animals vary widely and are rife with contradic-
tions (Arluke & Sanders, 1996). Studies reveal that numerous factors inuence
people’s attitudes (Batt, 2009; Kellert, 1996; Plous, 1993). Anthropomorphized
species, including but not limited to those commonly kept as companions,
elicit greater concern than do other species. Phylogenetic similarity to hu-
mans; perceived intelligence; domestication; and neoteny, or “cuteness,” also
inuence people’s views. When it comes to the abuse of non-human animals
versus children, however, the former lags far behind the latter in terms of the
willingness of society to criminalize the violence, intervene to stop it, and pro-
vide resources to help the victims.
Social science research has yielded mixed results in studies of empathy felt
for non-human versus human victims. Much of the inconclusiveness likely
stems from difering perspectives on the nature of empathy. Dened as “a vi-
carious emotional response to another’s emotions or states” (Paul, 2000, p. 194),
some researchers depict empathy as one continuous capacity directed toward
diferent targets (Eisenberg, 1988; Serpell & Paul, 1994; Signal & Taylor, 2007;
Taylor & Signal, 2005). Under this framework, individuals who feel compas-
sion for other people feel similarly toward non-human animals, and vice versa.
Assuming that the same positive correlation holds for a lack of compassion, or
for cruelty, the idea that a continuous emotion generalizes to diferent targets
has implications for understanding a wide range of anti-social behavior, from
animal abuse to violent acts directed at other people (Ascione, 1992).
In contrast, drawing on examples of how empathy for non-human animals
does not generalize to humans, such as the Nazis (Arluke & Sax, 1992) and mili-
tant animal liberation activists (Monaghan, 1999), Paul (2000) proposed sepa-
rate empathy constructs, with one capturing people’s response to non- human
animals and another tapping a similar response involving human targets.
Paul’s (2000) research found support for the presence of two types of empathy
with some shared components, rather than a single, continuous mechanism.
Studies of human-animal interaction have also sought to locate the factors
that underlie empathy. Yet, apart from nding gender diferences, with fe-
males consistently scoring higher than males on attitudes toward non-human
animals and measures of empathy (Angantyr et al., 2011; Herzog, Betchart, &
Pittman, 1991; Matthews & Herzog, 1997; Phillips et al., 2011; Topolski et al.,
2013), these studies have been inconclusive. Because many people have close
relationships with companion animals, with some claiming to have greater
emotional connection to non-human animals than to people (Archer, 1997;
Bonas, McNicholas, & Collis, 2000), research has examined whether the re-
lationship inuences empathy. Here, too, the research ofers no denitive
conclusions. Although Paul and Serpell (1993) found an association between
companion animal ownership in childhood and concern about the welfare of
both humans and non-human animals, Paul (2000) later found a signicant
association between current or childhood ownership and empathy directed at
animals, but not at humans.
We recognize the controversy surrounding “ownership” of non-human animals; we have
used the term, as well as “owner,” where consistent with the cited literature.
Taylor and Signal (2005) found that current companion animal ownership,
but not ownership in childhood, correlated with high scores on measures
of human-human empathy. Studies by Signal and Taylor (2006) and Meyer,
Forkman, and Paul (2014) found that ownership, regardless of life stage, had
no efect on concern for non-human animals. In a study of children, Daly and
Morton (2003) found that having companion animals did not result in signi-
cantly higher empathy. Daly et al. (2014) found that, while non-human animal
companionship alone did not make respondents more likely to empathize
with animals than humans, level of attachment to the companion animal did
signicantly mediate respondents’ emotional response on behalf of animals.
Respondents were generally more “bothered” by the victimization of a human
infant than a puppy—with the exception of dedicated companion animal
guardians, who were more upset by the puppy-abuse than any other group.
These and other studies focus on characteristics pertaining to the observ-
ers, or the person experiencing the empathy. The observer-centered approach
seeks the antecedent factors—whether related to personality, demographics,
development, psychological skills (e.g., nurturance), or lifestyle choices (e.g.,
being a vegetarian)—that might inuence empathy (see Davis, 2006; Preylo &
Arikawa, 2008). Research design may explain the mixed results. By comparing
an observer’s emotional response to a human versus an animal victim, these
studies pit species against each other (e.g., Westbury et al., 2015). Doing so may
falsely attribute greater emotional response to a victim’s species—animal or
human—when the response may be triggered by specic attributes of victims,
regardless of their species. In particular, these studies fail to examine the ef-
fect of age of victim when comparing human and animal targets. In Angantyr
et al. (2011), for example, one set of scenarios compares adult victims (a man,
woman, cat, and dog), and another compares young victims (a child, baby,
and puppy). In Daly et al. (2014), all the scenarios depict the “abuse victims” as
young: either as puppies or infants. These studies require respondents to make
choices between victims of diferent species but within the same age category.
A smaller number of studies consider age of the victim as an empathy trigger
(Lehmann et al., 2013; Prguda & Neumann, 2014). For example, one study that
incorporated age as a potential empathy trigger examined respondents’ will-
ingness to help any of three hypothetical target victims—a 6-year-old child,
an adult woman, and a 40-pound dog—portrayed as under attack by an adult
man (Laner et al., 2001). Respondents reported willingness to intervene on be-
half of any of the victims, but children received the highest mean scores on
intention to intervene. Scores for women and dogs, while lower, did not difer
signicantly. Although the study incorporated age as a potential empathy trig-
ger, it still required respondents to choose between species.
The present study examines the extent to which people’s reactions of dis-
tress to animal and human sufering stem from the perceived vulnerability of
the victim, as characterized by youth. In doing so, we include two potential
antecedents to empathy: current need, as depicted by an abuse scenario, and
vulnerability, as characterized by the victim’s youth. Although the empathic
response is considered a response to perceiving another in need, the types of
need that elicit empathy (i.e., whether someone is in current need of help or is
in a vulnerable position) deserve greater attention (Batson et al., 2005; Lishner
et al., 2011). Vulnerability can exist without current need; we can perceive an-
other as defenseless even in the absence of potential harm, and doing so would
not elicit empathy. Similarly, seeing another in need might not elicit empathy
if that other were also seen as capable of resolving the situation without help
(Midlarsky & Hannah, 1985).
Research also suggests that the empathic response arises from mechanisms
that evolved to promote the care and protection of the young (Dijker, 2010,
2014; Lishner et al., 2008; Lishner et al., 2011). From an evolutionary perspec-
tive, a “parental instinct” generalizes to extend care and concern even to non-
kin (Lorenz, 1971; McDougal, 1908). Informed by this view, and using age as an
indicator of vulnerability, we hypothesize that, when reading about a violent
act, young rather than adult victims, regardless of species, will elicit greater
Materials and Methods
All participants were undergraduate students enrolled in introductory sociol-
ogy and anthropology classes at a major northeastern university. The approxi-
mate enrollment in these classes totaled 380 students; 240 students completed
and returned the survey instrument. All participants were in the age range
18-23. One hundred and ninety-six were Caucasian, 16 Black, 19 Asian, and
nine Latino. Some 172 participants were female and 68 were male. Only those
students 18 or older were asked to participate. There were no other inclusion/
The university’s institutional review board reviewed and approved this
In a regular classroom setting, participants were recruited by asking the stu-
dents present if they would participate in the study. It was made clear that
student participation was completely voluntary and their acceptance or rejec-
tion to participate would not afect their standing at the university or in the
class. Before receiving the instrument, verbal informed consent was obtained
and participants were given an explanation for completing the instrument.
All data were collected during a regular class period. Both oral and written
instructions indicated that all answers were to be treated condentially, and
that participants could stop at any time, even if they had already started the
To manipulate the independent variables, consenting participants were ran-
domly given a ctitious newspaper article that described one of four vignettes
(1-year-old infant, 30-year-old adult, a puppy, or 6-year-old adult dog) that de-
tailed an attack perpetrated against the victim. The vignettes difered only by
the identication of the victim. All other conditions remained the same. For
example, our vignette for the puppy was as follows:
Please read the following article taken from the Boston Globe, October
16th, 2010: BOSTON-After a noticeable increase of attacks against residents
of certain Boston neighborhoods, Police Commissioner Davis has assigned
a larger law enforcement presence to crime “hotspots” around the City. Last
week, police investigators documented a total of 11 attacks on residents
of the South End alone. According to witnesses present, one particularly
vicious assault involved a one-year-old puppy that was beaten with a base-
ball bat by an unknown assailant. Arriving on the scene a few minutes after
the attack, a police ocer found the victim with one broken leg, multiple
lacerations, and unconscious. No arrests have been made in the case.
Participants were then asked to indicate their degree of empathic concern for
the victim in the vignette by their responses on an Emotional Response Scale
(Batson, 1987). The measure consisted of 16 emotions to which participants
responded by indicating how much they felt each toward the victim whose ac-
count they read on a series of 7-point rating scales: for example, from 1 (not at
all sympathetic) to 7 (extremely sympathetic). The list included six emotions—
sympathetic, softhearted, warm, compassionate, tender, and moved—that have
been employed in many previous studies to assess feelings of empathic con-
cern (See Batson et al., 2005, 2007).
The ratings on the 16 scales were summarized to yield a total empathic dis-
tress score ranging from 7 (little empathy) to 112 (much empathy). The internal
consistency of the overall measure was indicated by Cronbach’s Alpha = .83.
Notwithstanding its lack of explicit validity and reliability data, the Emotional
Response Scale has been employed in numerous studies and published in the
most selective journals in social psychology, as a measure of empathy and per-
sonal distress (See, for example, Batson, 1991; Batson et al., 1981; Batson et al.,
1983; Batson et al., 1986; Batson et al., 1988; Batson et al., 1989; Batson et al., 1995;
Batson et al., 1997; Batson et al., 2005; Batson et al., 2007; Fultz et al., 1986;
Lishner et al., 2011; Toi & Batson, 1982).
As a check on the efectiveness of the manipulation, participants were
asked to recall the age and species of the victim from the vignette they had
received. The nine students who gave at least one incorrect response were ex-
cluded from the study, leaving a total of 231 participants whose responses were
subjected to analysis.
Once participants read one of the ctitious newspaper articles and completed
the questionnaire, they were fully debriefed, thanked for their time, and asked
to remain in the classroom for their regularly scheduled lecture.
Data were subjected to a 2 (species of victim) × 2 (age of victim) × 2 (gender of
participant) analysis of variance in which main efects and interactions were
examined. Results indicated that the main efects for age of victim and gender
of participant, but not for species of victim, were signicant. More specically,
female participants (M = 74.94, = 21.58) were signicantly more empathic
than their male counterparts (M = 69.28, = 20.91), regardless of species,
F(1,224) = 4.34, p = .04, d = .28. This result is consistent with the nding of an
earlier study, in which females were found to be more distressed than males
regarding victimization generally (Angantyr et al., 2011).
Not surprisingly, participants in the present study were signicantly more
empathic when the victim was an infant or puppy (M = 78.22, = 15.80) than
an adult person or dog (M = 65.99, = 20.90, F(1,224) = 20.23, p = .0001, d =
.79). At the same time the interaction between age and species also yielded
signicant diferences, F(1,224) = 12.70, p = .0001, d = .61, but of an unexpected
character. Based on Tukey’s multiple comparison test, all of the age catego-
ries—infant (M = 82.76, = 14.53), puppy (M = 75.34, = 17.06), and adult
dog (M = 73.15, = 22.07)—received signicantly greater empathy than did
the human adult victim (M = 62.09, = 19.72). Only in comparison with the
infant did the adult dog receive signicantly less empathy than other victims
( = 8.85). None of the other interaction efects were signicant.
Our results indicate that respondents were signicantly less distressed when
adult humans were victimized, in comparison with human babies, puppies,
and adult dogs. Only relative to the infant victim did the adult dog receive
lower scores of empathy. These results provide partial support for the assump-
tion that people generally care more about non-human animal sufering than
human sufering. More specically, when confronted with hypothetical abuse,
individuals report more distress over non-human rather than human victim-
ization, unless a human child experiences the sufering.
There are two possible—and related—explanations for these ndings, nei-
ther of which can be conrmed in the present study. First, the higher scores for
the infant over all other victims are consistent with other research highlight-
ing the importance of similarity between respondents and victims. The “per-
ceived similarity” explanation maintains that people feel concern for others
whom they perceive as similar to themselves (Batson et al., 2005; Krebs, 1975).
Thus, species similarity could account for the preference of the infant over the
puppy and dog, as in the study by Daly et al. (2014).
Second, the higher scores for the infant and the puppy suggest the impor-
tance of vulnerability, as conveyed by youth, in evoking empathy (Dijker, 2001).
Perceived similarity alone did not evoke empathy: it did so only when combined
with vulnerability. This is consistent with research suggesting that the empath-
ic response evolved to promote the care and protection of the young (Dijker,
2010, 2014; Lishner et al., 2008; Lishner et al., 2011; Lorenz, 1971). Angantyr et al.
(2011) support this explanation. Their study found that participants expressed
the same degree of empathy for a baby as for a puppy. However, unlike the re-
search by Angantyr et al., which looked only at main efects of young members
of both species (or interactions with gender of participants), we were able to
examine the interaction between age and species.
In addition, our results suggest that respondents were similarly concerned
for adult dogs as victims. That is, only empathy toward the adult human was
signicantly lower than empathy expressed toward an infant, a puppy, or an
adult dog. It may be that many people appraise dogs as vulnerable, regardless
of their age, when compared to adult humans. In other words, dogs, whether
young or adult, are seen as possessing many of the same qualities associated
with human babies; they are seen as unable to fully protect themselves, com-
pared to adult humans. Additional research could explore this further by ask-
ing respondents to rate the perceived vulnerability of the victims.
The vignette in which a human adult appeared did not indicate the victim’s
gender. In light of the traditional stereotype depicting men as dominant and
strong versus women as submissive and weak, it is conceivable that we would
have found greater empathy for adult humans if we had specied the female
gender of the victim. Future research might vary the gender of the human
adult target to determine whether our results apply as well to female as male
victims. In addition, examining correlations between the gender of respon-
dents and victims would test the perceived similarity explanation by assessing
the degree to which gender, along with species, inuences respondents’ iden-
tication with victims.
Indirect support for our ndings comes from studies of how people re-
gard their own companion dogs, some showing that people can consider
their dogs, whether full-grown or puppies, as children or babies. For example,
Greenebaum’s (2004) study of “Yappy Hour” at Fido’s Barkery showed that peo-
ple attending this event on a weekly basis treated their dogs like children and
regarded themselves as their dogs’ “parents.” In fact, Greenebaum’s subjects
did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as “fur babies,” or family mem-
bers alongside human children. Of course, not everyone will view dogs this
way. People who have dominionistic relationships with dogs, for instance, have
relatively low regard for their companion animals and value them primarily for
protection, compared to people having a humanistic orientation that elevates
dogs to the status of surrogate humans (Blouin, 2013).
With regard to the dog and the child being equivalent, this might also stem
from respondents’ difering perceptions of the vulnerability of the victims. As
with a “blaming the victim” situation, respondents might view adults as re-
sponsible for and capable of removing themselves from the abusive situation;
we expect the adult to walk away, as we would think we would do if in such a
situation. With a young child or a dog, respondents might see them as unable
to leave a harmful situation.
Of course, making similar attributions to both dogs and human babies also
may depend on the specic dog breed. In our study, we did not specify breed
in the vignettes. Future research might examine whether the “all dogs are ba-
bies” perception is breed-dependent by using vignettes that vary the identity
of particular breeds of dogs. Prior research ndings have been equivocal about
the public’s perception of and favorability toward diferent breeds, with some
studies suggesting that people perceive diferent breeds similarly (Perrine &
Wells, 2006), while other studies suggest diferences (Budge et al., 1996). There
might be less empathy for particular dog breeds stereotyped as highly ag-
gressive, whose owners are also pictured as violent (Twining & Arluke, 2000).
Although empathy was not directly studied, the respondents in Wright et al.’s
(2007) research found that dogs seen as unfriendly and aggressive were less
desirable and adoptable compared to dogs thought to be friendly and not
dangerous, suggesting that victimized breeds with the former characteristics
might elicit less empathy than the latter.
Whether people have as much empathy for other kinds of victimized com-
panion animals, such as cats or birds, let alone for wildlife, also merits inves-
tigation. While many people care about dogs (Plous, 1993), and perhaps other
kinds of companion animals, not everyone is likely to have the same degree of
empathy for dogs as, say, a squirrel, if the squirrel victim were similarly injured
in a vignette. Here, too, as with dog breeds, there is variation in how the public
regards various non-human species, heavily anthropomorphizing and perhaps
having greater empathy for some species like dolphins or whales while not
others, such as snakes (Arluke & Sanders, 1996; Ashley et al., 2007; Herzog &
Experimental research has the advantage of giving investigators an oppor-
tunity to establish cause-and-efect relationships by manipulating their inde-
pendent variables rather than by merely measuring the efects of variables
post-hoc. At the same time, experiments including ours tend to have far less
external validity than other research methods, typically including for investi-
gation only a few of the many variables that might inuence a dependent vari-
able. As a result, it is usually dicult to extrapolate from the respondents in a
single experimental study to any larger and more diverse population. We stud-
ied college students, most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties
and white. Future research might seek to generalize to an older and ethnically
more diverse population. Moreover, we excluded a number of variables that
might have contributed to diferences in empathy such as whether subjects
were owners of dogs. Still, the strong internal validity of our experimental ap-
proach is a result of the random assignment of respondents to various catego-
ries of the independent variables, so that extraneous variables can be assumed
to be distributed equally throughout the treatments and therefore cannot be
held accountable for signicant diferences.
In terms of implications for policy and practice, the results of this study suggest
an avenue for cultivating humane attitudes and potentially reducing the like-
lihood of violence toward human and non-human animals. The nding that
perceived similarity, coupled with vulnerability, resulted in the highest scores
among respondents ofers persuasive evidence of the need to shift the scope
of existing practices. We suggest that by emphasizing shared vulnerability,
rather than focusing on exposure to violence and aggression, innovative pro-
grams could reshape the treatment and prevention of animal abuse.
The incorporation of vulnerability has already advanced several other elds.
For instance, in the literature on disasters, the “vulnerability paradigm” argues
that characteristics of individuals and groups inuence their ability to “antici-
pate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact” of catastrophic events
(Blaikie et al., 1994, p. 94; see also Irvine, 2010; Tierney, 2006). This perspective
focuses attention on reducing risks beforehand, and not simply responding
after an event.
Current research on medical education underscores the need for physi-
cians and nurses to develop “a sense of what it means to be a vulnerable per-
son, without necessarily focusing on illness” (Holloway & Freshwater, 2007,
p. 709; see also Bochner, 2009; Hofmaster, 2006). The process of incorporat-
ing a perspective on vulnerability into specic programs would vary widely,
and the details extend beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, because
acknowledging vulnerability means acknowledging similarity as embodied be-
ings, similarly subject to harm and pain, it can have a potential impact on a
wide range of moral and legal domains related, but not limited to, interactions
between humans and non-human animals.
We would like to thank Abby Huhtala and Kaitlin Nesbitt for their competent
assistance in collecting and analyzing data for the study.
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