Why pet owners will risk their own lives to save Rover’s

March 2, 2018

It’s a scenario that played out recently on the NBC-TV series, This Is Us: Having heroically saved his family from a fire that was quickly engulfing their home, Jack Pearson ran back into the blaze to save his daughter’s dog. He later died at the hospital from a cardiac arrest brought on by smoke inhalation.

In real life, this episode plays out fairly often, Yahoo Lifestyle reports: This past November, a 61-year-old Florida man was hit by an Amtrak train, after running onto the tracks to save his beloved dog, Astrid.

One month earlier, a California woman succumbed to a wildfire while trying to rescue her border collie from a car. And in September, after Hurricane Harvey, a 25-year-old Texan was electrocuted after trying to save his sister’s cat from her flooded home.

Why do people take these chances for their pets? A Harris poll has found that 95% of pet owners consider their animals to be family members.

In a New York Times opinion piece, Dogs Are People, Too, written in October 2013, Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University Gregory Burns explained that this may be truer than most of us think.

“For the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an MRI scanner—completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans,” Burns said. “Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: Dogs are people too.”

Of course, Yahoo points out, Burns wasn’t suggesting that dogs are actual humans, but rather that the activity in one specific area of the brain where enjoyment is felt suggests that they are more emotionally intelligent than we give them credit for.

“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child,” Burns concludes.

This theory, as well as research into our co-evolution with dogs, might help explain why 40% of men who responded to a study by Georgia Regents University and Cape Fear Community College would save the life of their own dog over that of a foreign tourist. That number is higher for women, at about 45%, a story in the Huffington Post reported.

Dogs may not just feel like family; in an evolutionary sense, they truly are family. Yahoo reports that our close genetic ties to dogs also might explain why scientists find an increase in oxytocin (the love hormone) when owners gaze into their dogs’ eyes—the same hormone that increases when a mother looks at her baby.

Indeed, in a 2006 study conducted by the Fritz Institute, 44% of those who had chosen not to evacuate from a recent hurricane said it was because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind.

According to Yahoo, this finding served as a wake-up call for the federal government, which passed a law authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to include pets as a part of its rescue plan.

The law may save many households during upcoming natural disasters: According to the American Pet Products Association’s latest survey, 68% of U.S. households own a pet—a number that hovers around 85 million American homes nationwide.

Research contact: @abbyhaglage

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