Can animals feel empathy?

Picture of Dr. Else Verbeek
Dr. Else Verbeek

Dog behaviour scientist and consultant.

As all animal friends have probably experienced, it often seems that animals can feel empathy for each other and sometimes even for a member of a different species (us!). Indeed, there are many anecdotes of animals showing emphatic-like behaviour.
A very interesting one is the anecdote of the bonobos that tried to rescue a male bonobo that was caught in a trap. The bonobos had been spending the day looking for food in a swamp forest when one of the males got caught in a metallic snare.
Even though he managed to release himself from the snare by breaking a sapling attached to the snare, the snare got caught in some nearby lianas and he could not free himself. The other bonobos observed his struggle and tried to undo the lianas and also licked his wounds. When it turned out to be impossible to undo the lianas, the group left to the dry forest where they normally spend the night, leaving the trapped male behind. 
The next morning they travelled 1.8 km back to the place where they had left the male, but the male had already escaped! The travelling back and forward between the different forests was very unlike their normal foraging behaviour, and it therefore seems that they specifically came looking for the injured male that had been left behind.
This is a pretty amazing account of empathy-like behaviour in animals, but what is the real evidence that animals can feel empathy?
So what is emotional empathy exactly? In the broadest sense it is the emotional reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another.
Surprisingly little research has been done to investigate empathy in animals, and most of it has been done in primates.
For example, capuchin monkeys will often reward each other when given the chance. When the monkeys were given the choice between a selfish option (that rewarded only themselves) or a social option (that rewarded themselves and another familiar monkey) they often chose the social option, under the conditions that the other monkey was familiar, visible and received a reward of equal value. However, this ability to give social rewards seems to differ between species, and not all species show this kind of behaviour.
Another interesting behaviour that seems to be a result of emotional empathy is the support that monkeys give each other after a fight or conflict.  This often involves a monkey that was not involved in the conflict (the bystander) consoling the victim of the conflict. Horses seem to provide a similar type of comfort to the victim of a fight.
Some other interesting research in mice has shown that when a mouse sees another (familiar) mouse in distress, it also starts to show distress behaviour when it is put in a similar environment/situation as the stressed mouse.
Furthermore, just a brief social interaction with a familiar mouse that has recently been distressed is needed for a naïve animal to also become distressed. It therefore seems that fear can be socially transmitted between familiar animals.
More evidence for the support of empathic feelings in animals comes from sheep mothers that take extra care of their twin-lamb that had its tail docked (which hurts!) compared to their other twin-lamb that was not tail docked.  Similar emphatic behaviours are also seen in rat mothers when their pups are hurt. Even hens get very agitated when they see their chicks in distress!
The evidence that animals (and not only primates) can feel empathy is therefore mounting! However, much more studies will need to be done to rule out any other reasons for the empathy-like behaviours. I will keep you posted on the topic!


Edgar, J. L., Nicol, C. J., Clark, C. C. A., Paul, E. S., 2012. Measuring empathic responses in animals. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci.

Hild, S., Clark, C. C. A., Dwyer, C. M., Murrell, J. C., Mendl, M., Zanella, A. J., 2011. Ewes are more attentive to their offspring experiencing pain but not stress. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 132, 114-120.

Tokuyama, N., Emikey, B., Bafike, B., Isolumbo, B., Iyokango, B., Mulavwa, M. N., Furuichi, T., 2012. Bonobos apparently search for a lost member injured by a snare. Primates.