A recent study conducted at the State University of New York at Albany by psychologist Sydney Heiss revealed that children who grow up with a companion animal are more likely to adopt a plant-based diet in adulthood.
Heiss surveyed 325 participants regarding their diets and histories of cohabitating with animals and found a positive correlation between the variety and number of domestic animals with whom a child shares their homes and the chances of them adopting a meat-free diet. “Individuals who [lived with] a greater variety of pets in childhood endorse more concerns regarding animal use,” Heiss said.
Early socialization with animals, according to Heiss, gives individuals “an enhanced ability to generalize empathy from companion to laboratory, farm, and wildlife animals.”
“Past studies have shown that childhood pet ownership predicts the likelihood of adherence to a vegetarian diet in adulthood,”
explained Heiss. “Building on this research, we tested the hypothesis that the number of different types of pets owned in childhood is positively associated with degree of restriction of animal products in adulthood, and that this relationship is mediated by pro-animal attitudes.”
Similarly, a 2016 study showed that when meat-eaters were presented with images of live animals, as opposed to typical meat marketing that utilizes images of processed meat products, they felt more empathetic toward the animals, resulting in a decreased desire to meat.
A previous study in 2014 had similar results, finding that children with pets had a higher chance of choosing a vegetarian diet.
That study’s author, Hank Rothgerber, cited empathy for animals as a reason for the link.
“Once an individual feels empathy toward animals, it makes it harder to eat animals,” said Rothgerber. “For these individuals [who get attached to their pets as kids], the love they feel toward their childhood pet(s) was likely so strong that they have a hard time not seeing some aspect of their companion animal in the meat that they wish to avoid.”
Heiss added that further research should be done around the way pet ownership and the decision to follow a vegetarian diet are related.
“The possibility that an enhanced ability to generalize empathy from companion to laboratory, farm, and wildlife animals underlies this relationship should be examined in future research,” said the psychologist.
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