Are Rats Capable of Empathy?

Are Rats Capable of Empathy?

Story at-a-glance -

  • A newly published study suggests empathy plays a role in the helping behavior of rats.
  • In the experiment, when two rats were placed in a cage and one was restrained in a compartment inside the cage, the free rat kept trying until she learned how to open the door to the compartment and free the trapped rat.
  • Once the free rats learned how to open the doors to the restraints, it was the first thing they did when placed in the cage with their trapped friend.
  • The free rats weren’t fooled by stuffed toy rats in restraints, nor were they tempted for long by chocolate chips if their cage mate needed their help.
  • Six out of six female rats became door-openers for trapped cage mates, compared to 17 of 24 male rats, which is consistent with the idea that females in general tend to be more empathetic than males.

By Dr. Becker

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at the University of Chicago have demonstrated that empathy probably plays a role in the helping behavior of rats.

According to Discovery News:

Given a choice between munching on a tasty chocolate treat or helping a fellow rat escape from a restraint, test rodents often preferred to liberate a pal in need, indicating that their empathy for others was reward enough.

Rats Keep Trying Til They Learn How to Free Their Trapped Friends

First the rats were housed together in pairs for two weeks.

Then they were moved to new cages in which one of the pair was placed in a restraining device while the other remained free to move about the cage.

The free rats could see and hear their restrained friends, and they were clearly agitated.

It took the free rats from three to seven days to figure out how to open the door to the restraints holding the other rats.

Once they learned how to do it, freeing their buddies was the first thing they did each time they were put in the cage.

Distinguishing Between Stuffed Toys and the Real Thing

Next the researchers put toy stuffed rats in the restraints to see if the free rats would repeat the behavior of immediately opening the door. They did not, which proved the rats were able to distinguish between their cage mates and stuffed toys.

According to author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal:

"These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We're not showing them how to open the door, they don't get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it's hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works."

Free Rats Singularly Motivated to Help Cage Mates

The researchers were also able to establish that the free rats weren't motivated by a need for companionship or other self-interest.

When the cages were set up such that the trapped rat, when set free by the unrestrained rat, would be funneled into a separate enclosure, the rats still opened the doors to the restraints.

The researchers concluded the free rats were interested only in ending the distress of the restrained rats.

Piles of Chocolate Chips Less Important Than Trapped Rat Buddies

In a final test, the rats were tempted with chocolate, which they were known to prefer over rat chow. In control experiments, when rats were alone in their cages with no cage mate (restrained or otherwise), they ate every last piece of chocolate they were given.

The researchers put piles of chocolate chips in the cages. Even if the free rats sampled a few pieces of chocolate before heading for the door to the restraint, they invariably made it a priority to free their cage mates and then allowed them to eat the rest of the candy.

"It said to us that essentially helping their cage mate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he want(s) to, and he does not. We were shocked," said study co-author Peggy Mason.

Are Female Rats More Empathetic than Males?

When researchers switched the rats' roles, putting the formerly free rats in restraints, all six female rats became door openers, compared with 17 of 24 males.

Study authors concluded this behavior is consistent with the idea that females in general are more empathetic than males.

Since not all the rats came to the rescue of their cage mates, according to study authors, the next step could be to look for a biological source of the behavioral differences between the door-openers and non-openers.

This study only further supports my belief that rats make amazing pets. They are intelligent, gentle and empathic, now proven by science.