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The Emotional Lives of Rats: Rats Read Pain in Others' Faces

A new study shows that rats see the pain that other rats are suffering.

Rats are amazing social beings whom many people love to have as companion animals ("pets"). These lovely rodents also continue to be horrifically used and abused by the millions in laboratory research. Detailed research published in prestigious peer-reviewed academic journals show that rats laugh, enjoy being tickled (see also), and display empathy, yet, in the United States, they remain among the 99% of nonhuman animals (animals) who are used in all sorts of invasive research and who are thoroughly unprotected by the federal Animal Welfare Act. Indeed, the Animal Welfare Act doesn't consider laboratory rats to be animals.

Rats, mice, and birds are excluded from the definition of animal in the federal Animal Welfare Act

I realize that some might be incredulous to learn that rats aren't animals but a quote from the federal register does in fact read: "We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act's definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research" (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004). As I wrote in an earlier essay (please see "Rats Like Tickling: Why Is the Animal Welfare Act So Lame?"), how in the world do you explain to a youngster (or anyone else, for that matter) that these animals are not animals? It strains credibility that those writing the AWA can so easily get away with such rubbish. As stunning and absurd as this may seem, their exclusion from protection means just about anything can be done to rats "in the name of science." And, indeed, rats do find themselves on the receiving end of the most egregious and brutal treatment at the hands of researchers.

Rats read the pain in the faces of other rats

In addition to what we know about how rats experience positive emotions, we now know that rats are able to read pain in the faces and body postures of other rats. An excellent summary of this recent research can be read in an essay by Virginia Morell called "Rats see the pain in other rats’ faces" (see also). In a research paper called "Receiving of emotional signal of pain from conspecifics in laboratory rats" published by Satoshi Nakashima and his colleagues in the journal Royal Society Open Science, we learn that rats visually recognize the emotional expressions of other rats. The abstract for this paper reads: Though recent studies have shown that rodents express emotions with their face, whether emotional expression in rodents has a communicative function between conspecifics is still unclear. Here, we demonstrate the ability of visual recognition of emotional expressions in laboratory rats. We found that Long-Evans rats avoid images of pain expressions of conspecifics but not those of neutral expressions. The results indicate that rats use visual emotional signals from conspecifics to adjust their behaviour in an environment to avoid a potentially dangerous place. Therefore, emotional expression in rodents, rather than just a mere ‘expression’ of emotional states, might have a communicative function.

So, what are we going to do with this new discovery? There are non-animal alternatives

Researchers, including those who cause pain in rats, are not surprised by this finding, and neither am I. Combined with what we've previously learned about the rich and deep emotional lives of rats, we need to ask, "Why are rats still unprotected by animal welfare legislation and why are they continually abused in research?" Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, is one of those who intentionally causes rats to suffer in his research program conducted in his Pain Genetics Laboratory. He claims, "'The more we do experiments like this, the more we wonder if we should do experiments like this.' But, he adds, if we want to study pain and pain treatments, 'there is no alternative. Tissue cultures and computer simulations won’t work. We must do animal experiments, as we will never get ethical approval to do these tests on humans.'” Many people, including researchers, strongly disagree with Dr. Mogil's assertion that there are no non-animal alternatives (see also). Dr. Mogil also developed pain grimace scales for mice and rats and was part of a team that discovered that mice display empathy.

Enough's enough: The federal Animal Welfare Act continues to be lame

It's about time that those people who are responsible for writing legislation to protect other animals from invasive and abusive research use the scientific information that is readily available. It is inexcusable not to do so. The federal Animal Welfare Act in the United States is lame and continues to permit the horrific abuse of tens of millions of animals each year "in the name of science," when there are ample non-animal alternatives. A good way to begin to ask for change and to spread the word about the emotional lives of rats and other animals is to contact members of Congress and ask them to do something on behalf of other animals and explain that there are solid scientific reasons to do so.

Note: I just learned about an essay called "Victory! Arizona Vetoes Bill That Says Farm Animals Aren’t Animals." Amen.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) has recently been published. (; @MarcBekoff)