Animals, Empathy, and Pain

I was just rereading Neuroethics, Ch. 6 (“Animal Neuroethics and the Problem of Other Minds”), and I was interested in the part about animals’ reactions to distress and pain, and how they differ from humans. This section, in particular, jumped out at me: “(Animals) may not express distress in nonverbal ways that are analogous to ours … (ex.) they may not vocalize at all, and may freeze rather than struggle when afraid” (pg. 342). My issue with that, is that that’s how some humans might react as well, depending both on their personality and on the environment in which they grew up. To me, the really interesting question is: is “pain” the same to an animal as it is to a human? Moreover, is “pain” the same to one human as it is to another human?

On a related note, the book did talk a little bit about empathy(/“mirror neurons”). They talked about the brain/behavior sequence of “You stub your toe à you feel pain à you say “ouch”/your ACC activates”; “Joe stubs his toe à he feels pain à he says “ouch”/his ACC activates”. They did make a brief connection to empathy (“Joe stubs his toe à you see it à you say “ouch”/your ACC activates”). So they covered human-to-human empathy – but what about animal-to-human empathy? My mom told me a story about how recently, she injured herself, and was in visible distress for most of the day. The family dog (despite being old, deaf, and typically indifferent) actually seemed to realize that my mom was in pain – she apparently kept following my mom around, nuzzling her, trying to lick the injured area, etc. I found this article that suggests that we actually bred dogs for empathy. So, I do believe that there can be animal-to-human empathy, even if it is not as cognitively complex as human-to-human empathy.

3 thoughts on “Animals, Empathy, and Pain

  1. Great point about how pain is experienced may differ from person to person.

    I saw a video on tumblr (hehehe) called “Dog cries/whines while watching Lion King”. Descriptions of and comments on the video suggest the dog is feeling pain or sadness that is similar to ours. Here is the youtube link to the video: I would love to hear what y’all think about it!


  2. In an effort NOT to anthropomorphize our dogs, I will say that of course they feel pain and emotion, although I do believe that their tolerance for pain varies from individual dog to individual dog, just as it does in people. Dogs are extremely sensitive to our emotions, and in fact are able to tell just from the scent we are giving off what type of mood we are in. Scent is their dominant sense so and it is so acute that they are able to pick up a change in body chemistry. They most likely are able to “empathize”, not in the way that they realize and say to themselves”Ok, now my human is hurting, I have felt that too at some point, and now I feel so bad for her”. With dogs it is a matter of wanting to please us, and they do sense a change in emotion, and know that by their closeness or attention, they make us feel better. They aim to please (most of the time!) and if their closeness pleases us, it all good!


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