Talented Rats Induce Empathy in Humans

In a laboratory, people matter: a key contributor to good animal welfare is the presence of compassionate caretakers. Research has shown that a “belief in animal mind” (BAM)—seeing animals as self-aware and capable of solving problems and experiencing a range of emotions such as fear, depression, and pleasure—leads to more empathy. Individuals with a strong BAM are more likely to show concern, establish connections, and try to understand the experience of the animals, leading to greater attentiveness and better care.

So how can BAM be fostered within the biomedical research community? Dr. Cathy Schuppli (pictured below), a university veterinarian and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, set out to answer this question. 

Schuppli tested whether exposure to well-socialized rats who displayed complex mental and behavioral abilities would increase empathy in researchers working with these animals. In a recent online seminar hosted by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, Schuppli explained that, in Canada, individuals working with animals in a federally funded institution must take a hands-on course to learn how to interact with and handle the type of animal used in their lab. When training courses for rat users were taking place at her institution, Schuppli arranged for attendees to use either “regular” rats or specially handled and trained “superstar” rats. The courses were followed by focus groups to determine whether attendees’ opinions about rats differed depending on which rats they had been exposed to. The idea was that attendees witnessing superstar rats would return to their facilities and think a little differently of their own animals and be more attentive to them. 

Regular rats received no special handling or training. Beginning soon after birth, however, superstar rats were gently handled by undergraduate student volunteers, and they were trained using positive reinforcement to perform a variety of tasks, such as sitting on a scale, giving high fives, fetching a little ball, and “rescuing” a small plush toy hanging off a table by a string. 

Training course attendees in the superstar group were told the names and unique personalities of the rats and watched them perform the tasks they had learned. These interventions were designed to promote elements believed to be important toward fostering empathy, such as witnessing personality traits and relationships with the handlers. 

During the focus groups that followed the training course, attendees were asked eight open-ended questions; for example, “What was your experience when you handled the rats?” and “Did you learn anything new about rats?” Schuppli recorded and transcribed these sessions and later performed a qualitative analysis of the transcripts. Three major themes emerged, described below, along with representative quotes.

Theme 1: Evidence of empathy/BAM
Attendees from the superstar group expressed that rats are “amazing,” “smart,” have personalities, and are capable of experiencing emotions.

“I thought it was funny that they could respond to their names. It made them like they had their own little personalities. So when I went to handle the rat, I was like “who is this?” I wanted to know, which is weird because in my lab it’s just numbers.” – RK

“So now I know they would understand if I give them love. I feel like they would understand it, so I can actually make their lives better by giving them more attention.” – RM

“I think about them differently now. We actually got to see more of what they’re capable of. I have a bit more respect for them.” – RL

Others expressed that this intervention reminded them of their moral responsibilities to their research animals.

“It’s a really good way of reminding us that these are animals, creatures. They are intelligent, they aren’t just a tool. Treat them humanely, treat them correctly.” – RE

Theme 2: Witness to human-animal relationship
Attendees in the superstar group expressed reduced fear of being bitten.
“When I first saw them I was a little taken aback and then I just noticed that you were comfortable with them and that made me feel like they wouldn’t bite.” – RL

However, many attendees in the superstar group also expressed concerns about the consequences of becoming “attached,” “connected,” or “bonded” to their research subjects.

“As a researcher it would be a lot harder to sacrifice them. Them having names and having that connection with them—I think I already have a hard time with the sacrifice—so I think it might make it even harder.” – NH

Theme 3: Data validity
There was a lack of consensus in the superstar group on how the human-animal relationship would affect research data. Some expressed that the relationship would be beneficial, because more relaxed animals yield better data. Others felt that a better relationship could have a negative impact on research data.

“That’s also kind of important for us because we have to do blind study right. We shouldn’t really know them at all because that might compromise the study if you have a favorite one, then we might give them better treats or whatever.” – RY

In contrast to the comments above from attendees in the superstar group, those from the control group expressed few comments related to the animals, except that they found the rats cute. Control group attendees’ comments focused on the technical aspects of what they had learned in the course.

While Schuppli acknowledged that attendees’ concerns about becoming more attached to the animals were important to consider, she felt that this also provided positive opportunities. First, these findings highlighted the importance of providing support to caregivers so that they can cope with the challenges of their work. She suggested as well that the knowledge that one did what one could to improve the animal’s quality of life and prevent suffering could help a caregiver cope with euthanasia when it is required. Schuppli concluded that the intervention showed promise for promoting empathy and compassion, and that it reminded training course attendees of their moral obligations toward research animals.