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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?

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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