Treat Your Friend Like a Rat

Rats can show empathy and compassion

A fascinating experiment conducted at the University of Chicago and reported in the journal Science may make you rethink using the phrase “he’s a rat” to mean something derogatory. In this study, two rats who were not familiar with each other were placed in an experiment. One rat was confined in a small enclosure that he couldn’t escape. The other rat was outside of the enclosure where it could move freely and had access to a stash of chocolate chips. The enclosure was rigged in such a way that the free rat could work to let the other rat escape.

So here you are—top rat. Nice bowl of treats all to yourself while another rat you don’t even know huddles uncomfortably behind an enclosure. What do you do? Researchers were amazed when they found the free rat did two things:

  • He worked to set the other rat free.
  • He saved treats for the other rat to share.

Amazingly, the rat did these things without getting any obvious reward for his good behavior. This rat gives a thought-provoking model about caring for strangers in our human world.

This research is truly amazing showing that the inner workings of animal brains are probably more complex than we thought. Empathy, compassion, and sharing are typically traits we bestow on fellow humans. But in this experiment, researchers noted those same virtues from the rats.

So the next time you’re feeling blue and your pet brings over his favorite toy for you or puts his head on your lap, he may not be looking to get something from you. Perhaps he’s simply showing the wonderful empathy of his rat cousins, just taking care of you because he cares.

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  1. My pet rats are extremely intelligent. They look after each other, take food to sick rats and snuggle with them to keep them warm. They also grieve badly; Hooper nearly died when his mate passed on, and I thought I would lose him too.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Annette, and reminding us how we often under-estimate our animal friends.

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