Animal Empathy: What Pets Teach Us About Caring for Each Other

Animal Empathy: What Pets Teach Us About Caring for Each Other

With inflation and rising costs being felt by many, we’re no closer to finding our way out of a mental health crisis in the United States. Over half of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment, and many don’t have the resources to keep their heads above the water.

Canidae® may be a pet food company, but our ethos is to provide goodness to pets, the planet, and people. We don’t have the answers to the mental health crisis, but we do propose taking a moment to reflect on our relationship with pets.

While we often train or teach our pets, little attention is paid to what they teach us. By shining light on the topic of animal empathy, we believe it’s possible to see what we can learn from our four-legged friends.

What Is Empathy?

Have you ever seen someone going through a tough situation and felt bad for them? That’s empathy. It’s as simple as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how it would feel to be in their position.

Having empathy in a particular situation often results in us changing our behavior and feelings. While most examples of empathy relate to humans, it’s also possible to feel empathy for animals. This can result in people adopting animals, avoiding eating meat or campaigning for animal rights.

But does it work the other way round — can animals feel empathy for each other, or even for us?

Do Animals Have Empathy?

People who don’t love animals may suggest the idea of animals having human-like emotions is a modern phenomenon. What they might be surprised to learn is that such concepts go back over two and a half thousand years.

Born in 570 BC, Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras — whose thoughts influenced the teachings of Plato and Aristotle — was convinced that animals possessed human emotions and a soul.

Another big thinker, Charles Darwin, believed human sympathy evolved from a similar sensation in other animals, and that our feelings and emotions are outwardly expressed in a similar way.

While those are two impressive names, in the modern world we need to look at solid scientific data. In recent years neuroscientists have been able to use brain imaging to trace neural circuits that imply the existence of empathy in animals. Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience describe mice wincing in pain after witnessing another mouse receive a shock to the foot. The scientists were soon able to identify the exact part of the brain that launches these emotions.

Perhaps you’ve heard about the “love hormone,” oxytocin? We mentioned it in our Valentine’s Day article, and research suggests it drives empathy between you and your dog — snuggling up to your pet boosts oxytocin levels in both your brains. This isn’t limited to dogs: supplementing oxytocin in monkeys can boost empathetic behavior between the primates.

Animals Showing Empathy

You’re sitting on the sofa after a hard day when your feline friend shuffles over or your pooch nuzzles up to give you some dog love. Pet parents often have firsthand accounts of the empathy shown to them by their besties, but it’s also worth looking at animal behaviors outside of the home.

Elephants in Mourning

Much like humans, elephants are known to mourn their dead. They have been observed visiting the bones of former herdmates and even performing simple burials using soil and plants.

In an incredible showing of cross-species empathy, elephants have been documented grieving for a human. Lawrence Anthony was a conservationist who went out of his way to provide elephants with safe sanctuary in South Africa. After befriending Nana, the matriarch of a herd, Mr. Anthony was able to create a strong bond with the whole group.

Years later in 2012, Mr. Anthony passed away. Despite not having visited for almost two years, the herd walked 12 hours to their friend’s house and stood vigil for two days. This was no coincidence: the elephants now make a yearly pilgrimage to Mr. Anthony’s house to pay their respects.

Consoling Chimpanzees

Have human children ever reminded you of chimpanzees? Maybe it’s the noise or all of the mess they make, but it’s worth noting that the two groups also share some positive traits. Just as kids can recognize each others’ emotions and comfort each other, chimps have been observed offering food and physical touch to other chimps who look like they need some love.

Drowning Rats

Rats might not be the first animal you associate with empathy, but a study published in 2011 describes how, when given access to a lever that would save another rat from being soaked in water, they didn’t hesitate in pushing it and providing an escape route.

In another round of experiments the rodents were given a treat if they didn’t pull the lever for their fellow rat. Surprisingly, the rats gave up the treat in an effort to save their fellow rat, but when the experiment was repeated without a distressed rat, the rats were happy to accept the treat.

Mice and Vinegar

This experiment also uncovered evidence of rodents showing empathetic behavior. Some mice were “jailed” and injected with vinegar, which caused them to experience pain. Different mice were then placed in the “jail block” and given the choice to visit the imprisoned mice or to ignore them entirely.

While the irritated and imprisoned mice could be expected to lash out, the “free” mice appeared to demonstrate the ability to empathize by visiting their cage mates.

Licking Prairie Voles

Prairie voles are one of the few mammals that mate for life and studies have shown they go to lengths to look out for each other.

Even in humans, empathy is a limited emotion — we typically feel it more for our friends and family than for people we don’t know. Likewise, when a vole is scared, its partner often comforts it by licking — but won’t do this with strangers.

Scientists found that prairie voles' stress hormones rise and fall with each other when one is shocked. Remember oxytocin, the “love hormone” we mentioned earlier? When the voles had their oxytocin receptors blocked they soon stopped caring for each other, suggesting the hormone plays a key role in the bonds they form.

What Can We Learn From Pets?

While we can gain great understanding from scientific studies and anecdotes of animals in nature, what we learn from the cats and dogs we share our homes with cannot be understated.

Having a pet helps children to recognize emotions and learn appropriate responses to them. The first relationship that a child has control over is often with a pet, and this can give them a foundation upon which to build future healthy relationships.

Pets are non-judgemental companions and often love unconditionally, which gives kids a safe space in which they can learn and grow. The positive feelings children develop towards their pets can fuel a desire to protect them from dangers real and imagined.

There is mounting evidence that having a pet makes us happier and healthier. Early adolescent animal owners also have higher self-esteem and better social skills than non-animal owners.

The things we can learn from dogs are wide-ranging. By “speaking” to their dog, kids quickly learn the value of tone of voice and that not all communication is verbal. This valuable lesson helps them to communicate more effectively and live their life in a less reactive manner.

Having a pet can also teach children (and some adults!) about the value of affection, understanding and responsibility. While taking Max out for a walk every day after school (or work) might feel like a chore at first, this type of behavior can help pet owners to become more compassionate and caring people.

While our dogs can teach us a lot about empathy and compassion, in certain circumstances a professional dog is more suited to the task. Therapy dogs are officially trained and licensed to provide comfort and affection to those who need it most. Some therapy dogs try to help improve patients’ mental health, while others have more specific objectives like giving disabled children the confidence to read out loud.

Therapy dogs can help somebody going through physical rehabilitation, but dogs that help one specific person (often their pet parent) are referred to as service dogs. Likewise, emotional support animals (ESAs) only help one person. To learn more about therapy dogs and other dogs with jobs, take a look at this article. Or, if you’d like to hear some inspirational real-life examples, check out these incredible therapy dog stories.

While some people describe animals as having human-like qualities, we suggest a change in perspective: Humans are actually incredibly lucky to have some animal-like qualities, including empathy. Now more than ever, we believe in the power of looking to our animal friends and using them as an example of how we’d like to treat each other.

At Canidae, we’re firm in our commitment to making pet food better for pets, people and the planet. Learn more about our story and consider transitioning your pet to Canidae today.