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Animal lovers' empathy may be hardwired in their DNA

Scientists have uncovered a genetic difference in people who show greater compassion for animals.

A person holding a cat.

A genetic study has uncovered a difference in people who show greater compassion for animals. The difference lies in a gene that produces a hormone called oxytocin - commonly called the love hormone - which is known to boost social bonding between people.

This is the first time the hormone has been linked to relationships between people and animals, researchers say.

Experts at The Roslin Institute and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) analysed DNA from 161 student volunteers, who were also asked to complete a questionnaire to gauge their empathy towards animals.

Researchers found those who showed the greatest compassion for animals had a specific version of the oxytocin gene. They also found that women responded more positively towards animals than men, as did those working in a profession related to animal care.

People's attitudes towards animals are known to be influenced by a variety of social factors, such as early life experiences, personality traits and religious beliefs. This is the first time scientists have shown that genetics may also play a role.

We already knew that oxytocin was important for empathy between people but now we know it helps us bond with animals too.

Dr Sarah BrownThe Roslin Institute

This research is only the beginning but we hope that these findings could help us to devise strategies to help improve animal welfare across the UK.

Professor Alistair LawrenceThe Roslin Institute & SRUC

The study is published in the journal "Animals" 

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