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Empathetic Rats


The act of helping others out of empathy has long been associated strictly with humans and other primates, but new research shows that rats exhibit this prosocial behavior as well.

In the new study, laboratory rats repeatedly freed their cage-mates from containers, even though there was no clear reward for doing so. The rodents didn't bother opening empty containers or those holding stuffed rats.

To the researchers' surprise, when presented with both a rat-holding container and a one containing chocolate â?? the rats' favorite snack â?? the rodents not only chose to open both containers, but also to share the treats they liberated.

Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the new study, says that the research shows that our empathy and impulse to help others are common across other mammals.

"Helping is our evolutionary inheritance," Mason told LiveScience. "Our study suggests that we don't have to cognitively decide to help an individual in distress; rather, we just have to let our animal selves express themselves."

Empathetic rats

In previous studies, researchers found that rodents show the simplest form of empathy, called emotional contagion â?? a phenomenon where one individual's emotions spread to others nearby. For example, a crying baby will trigger the other babies in a room to cry as well. Likewise, rats will become distressed when they see other rats in distress, or they will display pain behavior if they see other rats in pain.

For the new study, Mason and her colleagues wanted to see if rats could go beyond emotional contagion and actively help other rats in distress. To do so, the rats would have to suppress their natural responses to the "emotions" of other rats, the result of emotional contagion. "They have to down-regulate their natural reaction to freeze in fear in order to actively help the other rat," Mason explained.

The researchers began their study by housing rats in pairs for two weeks, allowing the rodents to create a bond with one another. In each test session, they placed a rat pair into a walled arena; one rat was allowed to roam free while the other was locked in a closed, transparent tube that could only be opened from the outside.

The free rat was initially wary of the container in the middle of the arena, but once it got over the fear it picked up from its cage-mate, it slowly began to test out the cage. After an average seven days of daily experiments, the free rat learned it could release its friend by nudging the container door open. Over time, the rat began releasing its cage-mate almost immediately after being placed into the arena.

"When the free rat opens the door, he knows exactly what he's doing â?? he knows that the trapped rat is going to get free," Mason said. "It's deliberate, purposeful, helping behavior."

The researchers then conducted other tests to make sure empathy was the driving force in the rats' behavior. In one experiment, they rigged the container so that opening the door would release the captive rat into a separate arena. The free rat repeatedly set its cage-mate free, even though there was no reward of social interaction afterwards. [Like Humans, Chimps Show Selfless Behaviors]

True motivations

While it appears that the rats are empathetic, questions about the rodents' true motivations still remain.

"It is unclear whether the rats sympathize with the distress of their cage-mates, or simply feel better as they alleviate the perceived distress of others," Jaak Panksepp, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Washington State University, wrote in an article accompanying the study.

Mason says they donâ??t yet know if the free rats are acting to relieve their own distress, the distress of their cage-mates, or a combination of both, but this is definitely a topic for further research. Sheâ??s also looking to study if the rats would behave the same way if they werenâ??t cage-mates, and she would like to tease out the brain areas and genes involved in the behavior.

But, she says, â??We now have this incredibly controlled, reproducible paradigm.â?? Other scientists should be able to use the model they developed to see if empathy and prosocial behavior are present in other animals, she said.



It is my honest belief that all animals are more intelligent, emotional and in tune with others than traditional beliefs give credit.

Communication is the only factor blocking any real study.


Exciting news for you with regard to that:


My parrot with the pea-sized brain uses the words "Come here" to literally call me over to him. He doesn't say that phrase when he's covered at night muttering to himself, when he's playing alone without looking at me, or when he thinks I can't hear him. It's only when I'm within sight and he's bouncing up and down trying to get my attention.

Then one day we were playing attack-the-kleenex, which is where I have him run around chasing a ball of toilet paper. So he's running around trying to bite it and all of a sudden starts screaming "Come here!" at it. I just about died.





I do love animals. I have had a few dogs trained to hunt in various functions from retrieving to pointing to catching game.

It amazes me how they work together, read body language, facial expressions, pass messages along and gel as a team.

It goes far beyond instinct. And they way they manipulate their environments, groom each other, stick up for one another around other dogs, they are indeed intelligent and emotional creatures.

I've even had a fish, a Pacu, who could recognize patterns. If I tapped his glass in a certain way he'd go to the water surface and wait for grapes, another pattern and he'd go to the bottom and wait for his food, which sunk.

He let people pet him too, seemed to like the attention. Smaller fish seem pretty stupid though. I guess a brain the size of a pencil tip could be pretty limiting.


Yeah, birds will use situationally appropriate language. It does sometime seem to get close to real language. I had an African Grey staying with me for a while in the living room with our TV. If you stayed up late, heâ??d start saying, "TV off, bed time", over and over, until you turned the TV and lights off. Then he'd go to sleep.


I agree and I think what is holding up the communication aspect is that scientists keep insisting they communicate like humans.


They should add a third rat without the two-week bonding period and see what happens then...


My cat is pretty smart but only when it deals with 2 things: getting the most food for the minimum cuddle and staying inside when it's cold outside/staying outside when it's hot. Other than that he is stupid as hell.


while my partner did her phd yrs back she'd often come home crying, hating that she had to work w/ and euthanize mice.

at the time we had a shepherd and a cat. I brought home two pet rats, sasha and chloe...i named them. i told her, as i saw it, these lil' girls would be her way of feeling better and caring for something small. she took awhile to warm up to them but soon enough they ate from her hand, came when called, learning their names. they become spoiled, sleeping in cozy hammocks, eating homemade food w/ their regular blocks, eggs, yogurt, veggies, fruit. those girls lived nearly 4yrs.

rats are amazing creatures, very warm and kind, thoughtful, very much like mini dogs.

we've always owned rats as the years have past, ususally keeping 2-3 at a time. they even learn to use a litter tray, very clean animals. we keep them in a cage while away from home but have a room in the house w/ a couch and futon for them to run and play on, we nap w/ them.

I know this is T-Nation and it's about titties and lifting, but i love pet rats...cute little fuckers. i treat them no different than I would a pet dog or cat. thruth be told, we've likely spent a grand or two total on vet bills this last decade for our rats.

Once in a pet store these kids saw me w/ my tattoos and shaved head looking at the rats, out of stereotype/social normative cue instinct behavior they asked..."you getting those for your snake mr.?" I didn't say anything. A few minutes later I followed them over to the reptile area. They were all pimples and bmx about radical reptiles.

"hey mr., you getting a snake and gonna feed those rats to him?"

"Nope. Once a year I buy a baby boa, take it home and cut it's fucking head off, gut it, and cook it in a pan...then I dice it up and feed it to my pet rats."

They left, turned straight away and walked dead out the pet shop door. Rats all over the world collectively smiled with me as i grinned and walked to the front of the store to pay for my lab blocks.


one more. this was Joey, he just passed away a few weeks ago, he was my buddy. before anyone flames me for this, just remember i'm not beyond tracing an IP address, hiding outside your fucking house and beating you w/ a blunt object and or lighting your house on fire for teasing me. i'm just saying...i'm sensitive and i'd like to stay that way. you know like jewel.


last one...i don't want to go full vagina on T-Nation...


That is a cute rat. Real men love animals. Just not cats.


You just hate them because they have a bigger ego than you do.

And yeah, I play Skyrim.

Bite me.

Lvl 53 woodelf baby!


None of that computes.


Aw! :smiley:

Your wife's experience in the lab is why I work with plants. I recently nearly switched to a neuroscience lab, where I was told I'd get to cut part of the tails off live rats to take DNA samples. Basically, just like what I do now with plants, but on a rat! I figured, what's the point in trying to learn more about empathy if the experience makes you less empathetic and decided to stay at the plant lab.

Rats are amazing though! I used to have rats and mice when I was a kid.




Cats are odd beings- all of them. I've always gotten the feeling that it's half stupidity and half we really don't get their side of it.

For instance, why do so many people have trouble with their cat peeing on their stuff? I owned cats for 20 years and nothing of mine or my family's was ever peed on.


Nice thread.

But what about crabs, especially in buckets? Those spiteful little bastards!


Makin' 'em fight before the big cook-out... Yummy!