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Are Dogs and Cats Capable of Feeling Empathy?

By Linda Cole

I had a cat that always seemed to know when I was feeling sad. Toby wasn't a feline that usually climbed into my lap, and would come to me only when she wanted attention. Even though she wasn't the cuddly type, if she thought I needed a friend, that's when she would curl up on my lap and purr as if she was trying to make me feel better. A new study conducted at the University of London says dogs can feel empathy towards us, but I believe cats also know when we need a paw to hold.

From the study, scientists concluded that dogs are more apt to go up to someone who is crying and react to them in a submissive way. The researchers wanted to see if dogs would show empathy to either their owner or a stranger if the dogs thought they were upset. They tested 18 dogs in their homes, where the dogs were relaxed and comfortable.

A researcher sat with a dog's owner and they took turns humming, talking, and pretending to cry. The idea was to see if the dogs would respond just to their “crying” owner or if they would also react to a stranger. The study found 15 of the 18 dogs approached the sad person regardless of whether they were the dog's owner or not. Only six responded to humming.

Researchers concluded it's possible the dogs were expressing an emotional behavior and not just approaching out of curiosity. When the dogs reacted to the crying, none of them paid any attention to the one that wasn't crying. When it came to showing a submissive behavior, 13 of the 15 dogs that went to the sad person did so with their tail tucked between their legs and with their head bowed, which researchers saw as showing empathy.

When it comes to cats feeling empathy, there have been no studies conducted. However, most cat owners don't need researchers to tell us that our felines show sympathy not only to us, but to other animals and each other. I've had a number of cats over the years that would curl up beside me or on my lap when I was feeling sad. I have found one of my cats lying next to another one that wasn't feeling well, and have seen them rush over to see what’s wrong when I accidentally stepped on a tail. If I need to give medicine to one of the cats, the other ones gather around as if they're responding with empathy to the cries of the one being treated.

I've rescued a lot of cats off the street, and many of them were pregnant. When the time came for labor to start, the other cats and dogs were curious about what was going on, but I also saw them showing what I felt was empathy towards the mom. One of my dogs insisted on lying as close as I would let him get during labor so he could be there to inspect each newborn kitten. If one wandered too far away from the mom and cried out, he would whine until the wayward kitten found his way back. Was that showing empathy? I would say it was. After the kittens were born, I'd find one of the other cats in the nest with mom and the babies acting like a nanny and helping to keep the kittens cleaned. Both the dogs and cats were responding to the labor pains from the mom and then the cries from the newborn kittens.

Researchers have discovered that rats, chickens and even crows show empathy towards other animals and us. A crow in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, showed empathy to an abandoned kitten he had observed wandering around a neighborhood. Moses the crow was seen grooming the kitten, feeding her worms, and keeping her out of the street. The two became best friends and Moses is credited with saving the kitten’s life.

Dog and cat owners don't need a study to tell us our pets have emotions. Most of us can tell if our pet is angry, scared, happy, sad or nervous, or if they are showing empathy. My dogs come to me on their own if they think I'm feeling sad, and put their nose under my hand or rest their head on my leg as if they are saying, “It's alright.” My cat, Jabbers, sits in front of me and gently meows and puts his paw on my hand. To me, that is showing empathy, and it also tells me that when it comes to sharing their emotions, animals are more like us than some people realize.

Photo by Roger H. Goun

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