Animals can feel empathy just like humans do. Empathy for each other, for us, and even for other species.
Empathy is feeling what others feel. Empathy is the ability to not only detect what others feel but also to experience that emotion yourself.. We humans can empathise with each other and other animals. When we empathise, we ‘feel into’ others and understand how they feel.
We do this with people all the time. We also do it with non-human animals.
Anyone who has cared for a companion animal such as a dog will likely empathise with them too – for example feeling their excitement at dinner time, boredom after a long day indoors, pain when they stand on a thorn.
We can also empathise with other animals such as when we feel the pleasure of new born lambs frolicking in the sun or the sadness of a gorilla trapped in a zoo.
But can other animals also empathise? Many people may think it obvious that non-human animals will empathise with each other. This conclusion may be drawn from personal experiences of simply observing animals’ behaviour or from the fact that we are so physically similar in many ways. Many people ascribe empathy to their dogs.
It is thought that empathy is more likely to be present in social species. James Harris at Johns Hopkins University in the US believes that empathy is “an evolutionary mechanism to maintain social cohesion. If you’re evolving and you’re in a group, you’re more sensitive to the pain of other members in a group.”
Once believed by many to be only a human trait, scientists are now finding evidence of empathy in non-human animals, mainly in other primates such as chimpanzees, orangutans, but also in dogs, mice, and recently in chickens. Empathetic behaviour has also been reported in elephants.