Why people will give their lives to save their pets

The 67-year-old man who tragically died last week while rescuing his dog from a cliff in California joins a growing list of courageous pet owners who have done the same — humans who stepped in the way of danger to save an animal, and paid the ultimate price.

It’s a scenario that played out recently on This Is Us, when during a pivotal moment Jack Pearson ran back into the family’s burning house to save his daughter’s dog. He later (spoiler alert) died from cardiac arrest brought on by smoke inhalation.

Photo: NBC

But real-life stories in which the pet owners don’t survive are not difficult to find.

This past November, a 61-year-old Florida man was hit by an Amtrak train with his dog after running out to save her from its path. One month earlier, a woman in a California succumbed to the flames of 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.

The studies on humans’ attachment to pets is well-charted territory, as are health benefits associated with caring for animals. Science has shown that owning a pet can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress, ease social anxiety, decrease doctors visits, and relieve depression. It’s an incredible overall value — one that millions of American families are taking advantage of.

According to the American Pet Products Association’s latest survey, 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet, a number that hovers around 85 million American homes nationwide. Of the pet owners overall, a Harris poll found 95 percent consider their animals a part of the family.

Photo: Getty Images

But loving your dog or cat is one thing; risking your life for them is another. So what makes humans do this, and where does this love come from?

Questions like this have fueled a long-running joint project between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Mars Corporation’s Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. Over the course of a decade, scientists there have been zeroing in on human-animal interactions.

James A. Griffin, a child development expert at NIH, helps spearhead some of the research. In a recent report titled The Power of Pets, he and his colleagues capture the profound impact that pets have on our lives, including (on top of the previously mentioned benefits) improved heart health and a positive impact on children’s development.

The latter is where Griffin’s expertise lies, but the question of why humans will give their lives for animals is one that interests him too. Griffin says that at least part of it likely boils down to evolution.

Science is yet to agree on the exact timeline of when pets were domesticated. One major study suggests domesticated dogs appeared in Southeast Asia roughly 16,000 years ago, near present-day Mongolia or Nepal, while a subsequent study has revised it to 32,000 years. But the most relevant data comes from a 2013 study published in Nature Communications.

In it, scientists compared the DNA of Chinese street dogs and gray wolves (believed to have been the species from which the dog evolved) with human genes. When they looked specifically at those genes associated with digestion, metabolism, and neurological processes, researchers found a striking resemblance — not only in the genes themselves but also in how they evolved.

Their research suggests that dogs may have been more than simple companions, but also co-hunters alongside humans who helped them thrive. The idea of a communal relationship between humans and dogs — extending into today — has been bolstered by multiple studies since, including a 2014 study from Penn State that found evidence that a dog-human alliance is what ultimately forced mammoths into extinction.

“What it really comes down to is that we think of ourselves as domesticating dogs, cats, and horses. But especially with dogs it was really a coevolution,” Griffin tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They helped us survive as much as we helped them survive. They helped guard us too.” It stands to reason that if dogs, and eventually other animals, were a part of our survival story, our need to protect them from harm would be innate.

In a New York Times opinion piece from 2013, professor of neuroeconomics Gregory Burns takes this theory a step further. “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 writes. “Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: Dogs are people too.”

Photo: Getty Images

Of course, Burns isn’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 on our coevolution with dogs, might help explain why 40 percent of people would save the life of their own dog over that of a foreign tourist. Dogs may not just feel like family — in an evolutionary sense, they are family. It also explains 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.

Our connection with dogs (and other animals) is, in other words, profound — and may be bigger than our minds can fully comprehend. “A lot of what it boils down to is, what is the nature of our bond with animals and how does that work on a mechanistic level?” posits Griffin. “And how can we harness that to help people?”

As he continues to research ways to utilize our connection with animals, he’s reminded of one of the biggest pieces of proof that humans are willing to die for their animals.

“A larger-scale example played out in the flooding post-Katrina, when people literally wouldn’t get in rescue boats because they couldn’t take their pets with them,” Griffin tells Yahoo Lifestyle of the 2005 hurricane.  “People wouldn’t leave their homes — even putting their lives in peril — because they couldn’t bring their pets. And they ended up dying as a result.”

In a study conducted a year after the hurricane by the Fritz Institute, 44 percent of those who chose not to evacuate said it was because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind. The incident 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.

Now when natural disasters happen, pets are a part of the evacuation strategy. This is a smart and compassionate move toward protecting the lives of humans who care deeply about their pets, but it will do little to stop pet owners from risking their lives in the future. “There is something triggered in us on a psychological level,” says Griffin. “Those are some of the things we’re trying to unpack now.”

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