Animals’ Altruism and Ability to Empathize

If animals were incapable of empathy, of understanding another’s emotional state and having feeling for another’s distress, then we would find no evidence of altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom. But indeed we do.

Ethologists use the terms care-giving, or epimeletic behavior, and care-soliciting, or et-epimeletic behavior, to identify those behaviors that underlie the altruism we see in various species that means that they do have the capacity to empathize. Skeptics dismiss all of this as anthropomorphic and scientifically unproven, and it disturbs me to read some professional comments on this topic. For example, veterinarian John S. Parker stated that “Pets can and often do react to their owners’ distress or discomfort, but that is not to be confused with experiencing the emotion of empathy” (Letter in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, June 1, 2006, pp 1677-1678). Aside from contending that animals “do not have the cognitive capacity to put themselves in our place”, he incorrectly sees empathy not as a process or affective state but as an actual emotion, which it is not. Animal ethics philosopher Dr. Bernard E. Rollin’s response (in this same Journal, on p.1678), stating that “there is some very suggestive evidence that at least some animals, such as higher primates and elephants, do [empathize]” begs the question. The evidence from countless instances of empathetic behavior in companion animals is a red flag and not some anthropomorphic red herring, putting us all on notice that animals are far more aware than many people would like or accept for reasons best known to themselves. Here are some of the many accounts that people have shared with me about their empathetic animal companions.

Esther Schy from Fresno CA writes that “When I returned from the Cancer Center following treatment, I was extremely weak and ill. My two Airedale dogs would each take up their positions, like two book-ends, one on either side of me in bed and would lie there unmoving for hours, except for their taking turns laying their heads gently where I hurt the most.“One night two years earlier one of her dogs named Robbie “suddenly jumped up in bed next to my husband, almost plastered to his side. He normally never did this, preferring to sleep on his cushion next to my side of the bed. He kept trembling for one hour, and then went down stairs by himself, which is another action he did not normally do (leaving the bedroom at night). My husband suffered a massive heart attack and died a few minutes later. I believe that Robbie knew that something awful was to be.”

Like the Airedales who rested their heads on where their human companion hurt most, M.S.D., from Romeo MI has a Siamese cat who picked up on her cardiac palpitations that were causing much distress and preventing her from sleeping. “My Chloe came up, got as close as she could, and placed her paw on my left chest over my heart. Within a very short time the palpitations slowed and stopped, allowing me to get a good night’s rest.”

Amy e. Snyder in Chesapeake, VA was comforted by her Main Coon cat Bonkers, who slept at her side during the woman’s ordeal with throat cancer, giving her comfort and constant attention. During radiation treatment some 100 miles away from home, Ms. Snyder was only able to come home on weekends, and one weekend she found Bonkers lethargic and looking older. She took him to her veterinarian, and Bonkers was euthanized because he had developed an inoperable cancer “completely cutting off his windpipe.—I believe, due to the extreme oddness of similarity to our illness that my cat literally tried to take on my disease. He did get me through all of this.”

This anecdote supports my theory of sympathetic resonance, where highly empathetic animals may develop the same or similar disease that afflicts their loved one. Whether it is a deliberate or coincidental, the fact remains that empathizing is not without risk for humans and non-humans alike.

Many other letters attest to how cats and dogs have helped their human companions cope with depression and other emotional and physical difficulties, especially the loss of a spouse or other close relative.

Cary Watson from Clifton Park, NY writes that “Without my two dogs’ companionship, dealing with the loss of my wife would have been much harder. I can see why many people die soon after losing a spouse. We need love to carry on.”

Echoing this sentiment, Barbara K. Joyner of Courtland VA wrote that, following the untimely death of her husband to be, her adopted cats “make me feel wanted, needed, loved. They bring joy and happiness into my dark, sad existence.”

Suffering the loss of her only child from suicide, Patricia Maunu of Sioux Falls, SD tells me that her Bichon Frise dog J’aime “has given me the desire to get out of bed, and on many days given me the will to live!”

These and many other personal stories about how companion animals have helped their human guardians through difficult times, and are a constant source of affection and the joy of life, help us all appreciate why so many people who were victims of the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans and other communities refused to leave without their animal companions. They are integral parts of the family and emotional lives of millions of people, and those who have not experienced the gifts of animal companionship, and the depths of animals’ empathy, have missed a golden opportunity to enrich their lives and awaken their appreciation for all creatures great and small.