Dogs Show Empathy by Yawning, Study Finds

By Ashley Watson

yawning-dogA recent article in National Geographic online reports that a new study indicates that “canines yawn more in response to their owners’ yawns than they do to strangers’ yawns.” While this may not be surprising to pet owners or vets, it does point to a much larger interest in why humans (or animals for that matter) yawn.

As it turns out, there have been numerous studies on why people yawn, most of which have concluded that humans show empathy by yawning when other people yawn. This is especially true for people they care about the most, according to other research conducted on yawning and what causes it.

yawning-dog-3It would make sense, then, that animals respond in a similar way, especially to their owners. The National Geographic article also states,Not only did the dogs in the study yawn more in response to their owners’ yawns, they also yawned less when they saw fake yawns from their owners or from strangers, suggesting they were exhibiting true contagious yawning.”

Contagious yawning between animals and humans may help support the value of the human-animal bond, since it provides new evidence in the study of the relationship between humans and animals. This particular study, which was conducted in Japan by a team at the University of Tokyo, was the first time scientists demonstrated that contagious yawning occurs between different species. Elisabetta Palagi, of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome also noted that the results of the study could be explained by the process of domestication.

yawning-dog-2The American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMA) has always maintained that the human-animal bond “is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both.” The AVMA also concludes that this bond is important to community health, as well as the health of the client and that this bond has existed for “thousands of years.” In light of this belief, does this new study prove that animals empathize with us through yawning?

Despite previous studies conducted on yawning and empathy in humans, there’s still some resistance to the idea that yawning is an empathic response; however, the University of Tokyo study ruled out fatigue or stress as the cause of yawning because the dogs showed no change in heartbeat when they were yawning. Regardless, this new evidence demonstrates that our pets may be paying more attention than we realized.

Does your dog yawn when you do? If you’re a vet, what do you think of these new findings? Please share your comments with us on Facebook.