Jan
3
2019

If you’re a veterinary professional, empathy for animals could be hardwired into your DNA, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

And not just veterinary professionals—the study, published in the journal Animals,showed that people who display a greater-than-average compassion for animals are genetically different.

One gene in particular is different: the gene that produces the hormone oxytocin, which is known to boost social bonding between people.

You may have heard it referred to as the love hormone.

A neurotransmitter as well as a hormone, oxytocin levels increase in the human body during hugging, sex, childbirth, and lactation.

Although previous studies have linked oxytocin to the human-animal bond, this is the first to show that a particular variation of the gene that produces oxytocin is associated with higher levels of empathy for animals.

The researchers analyzed DNA from 161 student volunteers. The volunteers also completed a questionnaire designed to gauge their empathy toward animals. The data showed that the subjects who displayed the greatest compassion for animals all had the same variation of the gene.

Other significant findings: Female participants displayed more empathy toward animals than males, and both pet ownership and working in the animal care profession were associated with higher levels of empathy toward animals.

That probably won’t come as a surprise to most people reading this post, given that 60% of veterinarians are women (and while there are no official figures on the gender breakdown of veterinary technicians, some estimates have put it as high as 95% female).  

But could there be any connection between oxytocin and the ongoing crisis of compassion fatigue plaguing our profession, particularly among women, and particularly in light of new research that shows female veterinarians are more likely than men to take their own lives?

Is it possible to have too much empathy?

NEWStat reached out to Melanie Connor, PhD, a senior researcher at SRUC and the study’s corresponding author, to ask if there might be any link between the oxytocin gene variant and a tendency toward compassion fatigue.

“We have not looked at compassion fatigue, and as far as I am aware . . . there have been no studies looking at that with regard to oxytocin receptor gene polymorphism,” Connor said. “[That] would be an entirely different study and we cannot draw any conclusions with regards to compassion fatigue.”

“All we investigated was oxytocin receptor gene polymorphism and empathy toward animals, and our results suggest that this might be due to some variation,” Connor added. She also cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the study: “The sample is small and differences are small . . . it’s an exploratory study rather than a confirmatory study.”

The researchers also note that people’s attitudes toward animals are known to be influenced by a variety of social factors, including early life experiences, personality traits, and religious beliefs.

But maybe, just maybe, you were actually born to do what you do.

Photo credit: © iStock/SergeyNivens

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