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10 Examples of Animals That Show Empathy

While the animal kingdom is certainly full of more ferocious animals that are not considered to be social, it is also full of animals that are capable of social intelligence and traits. In fact, there are many animals that display empathy, which is most commonly thought of as a human trait. Read on to learn more about animals that have been known to show empathy for one other or even humans.

What is empathy?

Empathy is described as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. While we of course can not speak to animals and find out exactly what they are thinking and if they are feeling empathetic, there are several cues or behaviors that are interpreted as empathy in the animal world. For example, mirroring facial expressions or posturing is one way that an animal might show empathy.

10 Animals that show empathy

1. Dogs

Woman playing with dog
Woman playing with dog

Dogs are considered to be man’s best friend for a reason. Over human history, dogs have been domesticated to the point where they now are found in many people’s homes. In fact, most dog owners consider their dogs to be family.

This is likely because dogs are thought to show empathy by reading their owner’s emotions and sometimes even mirroring them. There are incredible stories of dogs rescuing their owners once they sense they are in distress or danger.

2. Mice

Mice eating
A mice eating Monika Baechler from Pixabay

Mice are often used in laboratory experiments across many different sciences, including psychology. Scientists have discovered that mice can recognize pain in other mice and will even react to that pain, even if they aren’t in pain themselves. Mice have also been known to recognize fear in other mice.

3. Rats

Rats on lumber
Rats on lumber | Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Like mice, rats are also commonly used in scientific experiments. However, rats are thought to be a little bit more intelligent than mice and therefore might have more emotional intelligence or capacity for empathy as well.

For example, researchers put several rats in a cage and restrained some rats within the cage and found that the free rats would work to release the restrained rats. However, when repeated with restrained toy rats, the free rats did not try to release the toy rat.

4. Chimpanzees

Young chimpanzee
Young chimpanzee

It is no surprise that some of human’s closest relatives are known to display human traits like empathy. Chimpanzees are incredibly social animals so emotional intelligence is important for them. Researchers discovered that chimpanzees showed empathy through contagious yawning with other chimpanzees they were familiar with and even humans!

5. Elephants

Feeding elephant
Feeding an elephant by Mohamed Nuzrath from Pixabay

Elephants are thought to be one of the world’s most empathetic animals. These oftentimes gentle giants are highly intelligent and form strong bonds.

They are known to recognize when others are in distress and attempt to console them. Additionally, elephants are very expressive when it comes to grief and mourning.

6. Pigs

Pigs inside the cage with hay
Young pigs inside the cage with hay | image by K-State Research and Extension via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Pigs are very intelligent animals despite their mistreatment in the meat industry. Researchers discovered that pigs are very effective at interpreting their penmate’s emotions.

They did this by placing pigs into pens with other pigs that had been conditioned to good or stressful stimuli and found that when the untrained pigs sensed that their penmates were reacting to a stressful stimuli, they also became stressed or more alert despite never being exposed to the stressor itself.

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7. Dolphins

Dolphins in an aquarium
3 Dolphins in an aquarium

Dolphins are arguably some of the most intelligent animals in the animal kingdom. Like most of the other animals on this list, they too are very social creatures.

These creatures are known to mourn the loss of other dolphins. Additionally, dolphins have been known to rescue distressed swimmers and even ward off sharks near swimmers.

8. Magpies

Magpie perches on a log
Magpie perches on a log | image by Airwolfhound via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Magpies are highly intelligent birds related to crows. These birds are thought to be capable of sensing the needs of others.

Researchers conducted an experiment where they gave some magpies an excess of food and others none. They found that the magpies with an excess of food would share with those without, even if the magpies without food were not begging like some of the others.

9. Prairie voles

Prairie voles with babies
2 prairie voles with babies | image by theNerdPatrol via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Prairie voles are probably not the first animal that comes to mind when you think of animals that can show empathy. But these tiny rodents are actually highly emotional little beings.

They form deep family bonds and mate for life. Researchers found that when prairie voles were in distress, their mates would begin to console them by repeated grooming and cuddling. Mates would even begin to show signs of distress themselves.

10. Humpback whales

Humpback Whale breaching
Humpback Whale breaching | image by National Marine Sanctuaries via Flickr

Like dolphins, whales like the humpback whale are very intelligent and social beings. Humpback whales have been known to display altruistic or empathetic behaviors.

Humpback whales have been observed to save gray whale calves from circling killer whales. They have also been seen chasing off killer whales from a seal. In fact, one of the humpback whales allegedly rolled over and carried the seal to safety on its belly!

Samantha Smith B.S.

About Samantha Smith B.S.

Samantha is a wildlife biologist with degrees in animal behavior and environmental biology. Most of her work has been with reptiles, however she has also worked with birds and marine organisms as well. She enjoys hiking, snorkeling, and looking for wildlife.