JoAnna Lou
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Do Animals Have Empathy?
Study finds that rats look out for their friends
My rats, Reggie and Angie.

Rats have a bad reputation, but they actually make wonderful pets. I had two before my living situation allowed me to welcome dogs into my family. They were clean and actually quite personable. Reggie and Angie quickly learned their names and would run to the side of the cage when I came into the room. I always thought of them as being very dog-like.

A recent study not only confirmed that rats are smart, but found that they may have empathy for their friends.

Researchers at the University of Chicago placed a free-roaming rat in an enclosure with a caged rat. Once the free rats realized that they could release the trapped rat, they opened the cage every day, even if they were immediately separated (proving the rats were empathetic and not only freeing the trapped rats for companionship).

In the final set-up, the researchers placed rats into an enclosure with two cages—one with another rat and the other with chocolate. They found that the free rats were just as likely to free the caged rats as they were to access the chocolate. Even more unbelievable, the rats almost always shared the treats with the freed rats.

Interestingly when females figured out how to open the cage, they would immediately open it every day. Male rats would occasionally take a day off.

It’s pretty cool that there’s research showing that animals aren’t always just looking out for themselves. I would love to see a similar study done with dogs. When I was checking out the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard University, the researchers mentioned that they had a canine empathy study in the works and there are other scientists who have tackled the subject.

I do think dogs are capably of empathy, even though I’ve never seen it in my own pups. I’ve heard stories of therapy dogs that “take on” the stress symptoms of the patients they visit and pups who won’t leave someone’s side when they’re depressed.

Have you seen your pups express empathy?

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
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Submitted by Shirley Zindler | December 21 2011 |

What a facinating study. Rats are truly delightful, social and intelligent creatures and make wonderful pets. I've always loved them.
My dogs have also never failed to amaze me with their ability to match my moods and respond appropriatly to so many situations. I have owned many dogs, most of them rescues, and I currently have five. I've done pet therapy in nursing homes and with severely disabled children. I've also fostered hundreds of dogs and participated in obedience, agility, lure coursing etc. There is so much to be learned from every dog. I have certainly seen examples of dogs showing empathy to people and to other animals.

Submitted by LisaH | December 26 2011 |

I believe my male BC can feel empathy. Since he was a little puppy he has been very responsive to my emotions, particularly when I am physically hurt. I sprained my left ankle a year or so back & its still vulnerable so occasionally on walks I twist it & he is instantly at my side, or when I have tripped he is right there beside me. He also is sensitive to arguing & wants to nuzzle who-ever is upset. Lastly, he has given toys to the younger dog and distracted her when I was occupied & she wanted attention.

Submitted by Jenn | December 29 2011 |

I love this article! My pet rats are the best animals in the world. However, I don't see them as caring as much for each other as the ones in this article. They always try to steal food from the other one!! :) :)

Submitted by Allison Nastoff | February 14 2012 |

My yellow lab Gilbert definitely has empathy. I will never forget the time I had to go to the hospital and when I got home, he did not leave my side. Last summer at his annual vet appointment, there was a cat in the waiting area crying so loud you could hear it through the closed door of the examining room we were in. Every time the cat meowed, Gilbert whined too. It was so precious I wish I had recorded it.

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