Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke, sociology professors at the Northeastern University, surveyed about 240 men and women in the US. (Agencies)
Participants randomly received one of four fictional news articles about the beating of a one-year-old child, an adult in his 30s, a puppy, or a six-year-old dog.
The stories were identical except for the victim's identify. After reading their story, respondents were asked to rate their feelings of empathy towards the victim. Participants had higher levels of empathy for abused children, puppies and dogs than they did for the abused adults, the researchers said. But the difference in empathy for children versus puppies was statistically non-significant.
"Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering," Levin said.
"We were surprised by the interaction of age and species. Age seems to trump species, when it comes to eliciting empathy. In addition, it appears that adult humans are viewed as capable of protecting themselves while full grown dogs are just seen as larger puppies," added Levin.
While the study focused on dogs and humans, Levin said that the findings would be similar for cats and people as well.
"Dogs and cats are family pets. These are animals to which many individuals attribute human characteristics,” Levin said.
The findings were presented Saturday at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.
Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke, sociology professors at the Northeastern University, surveyed about 240 men and women in the US.