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Mental Health

No Evidence for Emotional Empathy in Chickens Observing Familiar Adult Conspecifics
Published: Monday, February 13, 2012
Author: Joanne L. Edgar et al.

by Joanne L. Edgar, Elizabeth S. Paul, Lauren Harris, Sarah Penturn, Christine J. Nicol

The capacity of animals to empathise is of high potential relevance to the welfare of group-housed domestic animals. Emotional empathy is a multifaceted and multilayered phenomenon which ranges from relatively simple processes such as emotional matching behaviour to more complex processes involving interaction between emotional and cognitive perspective taking systems. Our previous research has demonstrated that hens show clear behavioural and physiological responses to the mild distress of their chicks. To investigate whether this capacity exists outside the mother/offspring bond, we conducted a similar experiment in which domestic hens were exposed to the mild distress of unrelated, but familiar adult conspecifics. Each observer hen was exposed to two replicates of four conditions, in counterbalanced order; control (C); control with noise of air puff (CN); air puff to conspecific hen (APC); air puff to observer hen (APH). During each test, the observer hens' behaviour and physiology were measured throughout a 10 min pre-treatment and a 10 min treatment period. Despite showing signs of distress in response to an aversive stimulus directed at themselves (APH), and using methodology sufficiently sensitive to detect empathy-like responses previously, observer hens showed no behavioural or physiological responses to the mild distress of a familiar adult conspecific. The lack of behavioural and physiological response indicates that hens show no basis for emotional empathy in this context.