Study co-authors Jack Levin and Arnold Arluke, professors at Northeastern University, questioned 240 men and women, most of whom were white and ages 18-25, at a large northeastern university. Participants randomly received one of four fictional news articles about the beating of a 1-year-old child, an adult in his 30s, a puppy, or a 6-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.
"Contrary to popular thinking, we are not necessarily more disturbed by animal rather than human suffering," Levin said in a statement.
"Our results indicate a much more complex situation with respect to the age and species of victims, with age being the more important component. The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full grown dog victims suggests adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids."
Age seems to trump species, when it comes to eliciting empathy, Levin said.
"We were surprised by the interaction of age and species," Levin said. "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."
The study focused on dogs and humans, but Levin said the findings would be similar for cats and people.
The findings were presented at the 108th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York.