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Do you love your pets as much as your kids? If you're a mom, a new study says you very well may. Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers investigated the brain structures of women and how they were activated when they looked at images of their kids and images of their own dogs. They found very similar reactions.

The findings don't come as a complete surprise, noted Lori Palley of the MGH Center for Comparative Medicine, co-lead author of the report and a doctor of veterinary medicine.

“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,” she said.

The study consisted of two sessions involving 16 women.

The first session was done in the home with women who had at least one child aged 2 to 10 and one dog that had been in the household for 2 years or longer. They completed several questions about their relationship with their child and their pet.

The second session was carried out at MGH. It included an MRI of the brain and looked at levels of activation in specific brain structures by detecting changes in blood flow and oxygen levels as the women lay in the scanner and saw a series of photos. The pictures were of their kids and their dog as well as unfamiliar children and dogs.

They were asked questions about the photos and rated several images from each category on factors relating to pleasure and excitement. All the pleasure centers showed increased activity when the subjects saw images of their own children and dog.

“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,” said Luke Stoeckel, MGH Department of Psychiatry, co-lead author of the study, which was published in the open-access journal PLOS One.

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