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Dogs Are My Favorite Kind of People. Anthropomorphism as a Tool for Animal Activism


Have you ever noticed that some people treat their dogs like their children? In my house, we treat our dogs like family members. They have human names, they sleep in bed with me, and we even all wear matching Christmas pajamas. When I talk about my dog Henry, I explain his anxiety, his grumpiness, and his great need for snuggles. When I talk about my dog Georgia, I explain her clinginess, her obsession with my dad, and her toddler-like antics. I talk about them as if they are other humans living in the home. Even while writing this blog post, I am dog-sitting for my friend’s parents. The parents left us pages of specific instructions talking through the dogs’ physical and emotional needs, just like a parent would for their children’s babysitter. 

Henry in his Christmas Pajamas

I don’t often think about why we do these things, because treating dogs like family seems so normal. But when we were learning about cognitive biases in my Cognitive Psychology course, I started to see the relationship between cognitive processes and this concept of dogs as family. The way that many people treat dogs is an example of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism, by definition, is the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities like dogs. Many people view animals such as dogs and cats as companions, similar to human friends. When we see animals as similar to ourselves, we are more likely to treat them better. I am going to walk you through the benefits of anthropomorphizing animals, specifically how it can help to reduce animal cruelty and increase the ethical treatment of animals.

But, let’s first identify why anthropomorphism occurs and the cognitive processes behind it. Anthropomorphism can be influenced by how much someone sees the animal as similar to them, as well as the development of a relationship or bond between the animal and human. This means that when you see similarities between your own behavior or emotions and your dogs, you are more likely to anthropomorphize your dog. Also, how close and affectionate you are with your dog and the companionship you feel in the relationship can increase anthropomorphism. But why is this the case?

Twitter meme of dog with human face

As humans, our brains have an inherent need to find patterns in the world around us and construct meanings behind these patterns. When looking at our dogs, we are pattern recognizing their faces and actively finding similarities between their faces and our own. Dogs and other companion animals have human-like eyes, and aren’t afraid to maintain eye contact with you. They are also affectionate, show when they are afraid, are protective of their home and family, and love to play. All of these behaviors are easily relatable to human interactions and characteristics. In our brains, when we recognize these characteristics and behaviors, we apply them to our past knowledge of human behavior, and perceive the animals as human-like. This is called top down processing, when past knowledge, experience or bias, influences how we perceive and process information.

Twitter meme of Dog with a human face

Anthropomorphism can also help humans’ emotional needs. When an animal or object is seen as human-like, it can actually increase someone’s feelings of comfort and emotional security (Wen et al., 2021). Why do you think therapy dogs and emotional support animals work so well to help people feel better? It is because the anthropomorphic relationship that humans can develop with dogs is actually emotionally beneficial.   

Emotional comfort is not the only effect that anthropomorphism has in the real world. It could actually be a piece of the answer to reducing animal cruelty. Sadly, animal cruelty is still a huge problem in the US. Dog fighting, abandonment, and abuse are just a few examples of this problem. I have worked in animal shelters and a Veterinary Hospital where dogs are abandoned by their owners in horrific conditions, and seen dogs bloodied by fights. The ASPCA says that 6.3 million animals enter U.S. shelters each year, and approximately 920,000 of them are euthanized. Animal rescuers and activists keep trying to stop these things from happening without much luck. How can we work to stop these acts of cruelty from happening and encourage more pro-animal attitudes? Anthropomorphism could actually help. Anthropomorphism can actually have an effect on a reduction in animal cruelty. It can influence people’s behavior towards animals in many different ways. When people read descriptions of dogs with anthropomorphic language, such as descriptions of their personality and quirks, they are more likely to say they would save an animal in distress (Butterfield et al., 2012). When dogs are described with human characteristics, people are also more likely to say they would adopt a dog in need of a home, and support animal welfare and pro-animal attitudes (Butterfield et al., 2012).  

This does not only apply to dogs though. The extent of people’s anthropomorphic behavior towards their pets influences their pro-animal attitudes and arguments against abusive practices. An example of this is how people justify their views on the ethics of the use of farrowing crates for pigs. Farrowing crates are pens for pigs who have just given birth and their piglets. They are considered unethical by animal activists because they don’t allow for nesting before birth and restrict movement for the pigs. They prevent the mothers from turning around or walking, or even getting away from the piglets at all. People who have pets in general are more likely to have negative attitudes towards farrowing crates (Vandresen et al., 2021). In particular, when people describe their pets as family members, they are more likely to believe the pigs are aware of their feelings and feel more empathetic towards the pigs (Vandresen et al., 2021). They are also more likely to describe why the crates are unethical through how they could make the pigs feel in the moment by being so restricted (Vandresen et al., 2021). This shows that anthropomorphism could have a beneficial effect on the ethical treatment of animals as well.

Anthropomorphic Bio on Adoption Website

Why does this matter though? How can we use this cognitive bias to increase visibility for animal welfare? Animal rescues can try and focus on humanizing their descriptions of animals in their biographies on websites.  They could describe their emotional temperaments and affectionate tendencies, as well as focusing on any of their human-like physical characteristics. When speaking about animal cruelty, legislators and activists could focus on the emotional impact of trauma on animals, asking questions such as: how do you think this practice makes the animals feel in the moment? They should humanize the animals feelings and focus on the similarities between the animals life and human life. Could the answer behind the ethical treatment of animals be through manipulating a cognitive bias? I think so.

ASPCA commercial that uses anthropomorphic imagery. Grab your tissues! It’s a tearjerker.

Click to Donate to Bunny’s Buddies, a nonprofit that rescues dogs from the meat trade


Butterfield, M. E., Hill, S. E., & Lord, C. G. (2012). Mangy mutt or furry friend? anthropomorphism promotes animal welfare. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 957–960. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.010

Servais, V. (2018). Anthropomorphism in human–animal interactions: A pragmatist view. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02590

Vandresen, B., & Hötzel, M. J. (2021). Pets as family and pigs in crates: Public attitudes towards farrowing crates. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 236, 105254. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2021.105254

Wan, E. W., & Chen, R. P. (2021). Anthropomorphism and object attachment. Current Opinion in Psychology, 39, 88–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.08.009 


Dog Image

Dog Bio Image

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