Bioethics Blogs

Rats Have Empathy, But What About the Scientists Who Experiment on Them?

Decades of experiments have shown that rats are smart individuals that feel pain and pleasure, care about one another, can read others’ emotions, and will help unfamiliar rats even at a cost to themselves. It’s time to apply what we’ve learned from these animals and stop conducting experiments on them in laboratories.

Recently, there was substantial media coverage of experiments at Japan’s Kwansei Gakuin University demonstrating that rats will help other rats in need and even prioritize helping others over receiving a tasty reward.

The experimenters placed one rat in a water-filled tank, a situation that terrifies rats and from which they try desperately to escape to avoid drowning. A second rat on a platform had to figure out how to push open a door to help the drowning rat reach a dry area. The experimenters observed that rats quickly learned to open the door to rescue their cagemates. When given the choice between opening one door to save a drowning rat and opening another door to secure a chocolate treat, the platform rats helped the distressed rat first – and then shared the treat with the rescued rat. Rats who had themselves previously been thrown into the water tank were faster at opening the door to help their panicked cohorts.

This study is only the latest in a string of experiments spanning nearly 60 years demonstrating that rats show sympathy for pain and distress experienced by other rats and take action to help them.

In experiments conducted at Brown University in the 1950s, rats who had been trained to press a lever for food stopped pressing the lever when they realized that with each press, a rat in an adjoining cage would cry out in pain (after experiencing an electric shock).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.