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Compassion, Empathy and Sympathy: Careful What You Say to the Dog!

Today’s post is by guest writer Susan Costello, MA, LMHC, CPCC.

“Shhh! Don’t call the dog chubby, you will hurt her feelings,” admonished my son when he was about eight years old. 

We were out walking when we encountered a portly beagle, and that was his reaction after I fondly said to the dog, “Oh, aren’t you a chubby one?”

In that moment, my son showed that he felt sympathy for the dog. I was touched and proud. (Fat shaming and its effects would be a whole other blog topic for another time!)

I was reminded of this incident from many years ago when I read an article in the journal Pediatric Research reporting that children who grow up with companion animals tend to be more compassionate and empathetic than other children. The article described a study by the University of Western Australia and Telethon Kids Institute that revealed that children aged 2 to 5 who live in a home with a dog were found to be 30 percent less prone to antisocial conduct than those from families who didn’t have a furry friend, and were 34 percent more likely to participate in considerate behaviors, such as sharing and cooperating with others. That’s significant but not surprising!

Children are better able to develop kindness and empathy through their early connection with a being of another species. Having grown up with a beloved dog could have explained my son’s concern that the dog we encountered on the street could be hurt by what I said. I believe that most children grow up with a love of and empathy for animals, but when they are encouraged to eat and use animal-derived products as they grow up, they must shut those feelings off. Our culture perpetuates that schism.

Let’s explore the differences among empathy, sympathy and compassion, three terms that are often used interchangeably but don’t actually mean the same thing. 

  • Empathy is a term we use for the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves. You viscerally feel what they are feeling.
  • Sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune. You can understand what they are feeling. You can imagine why they feel that way, but you don’t feel the pain along with them.
  • Compassion is having sympathy or empathy and then taking action accordingly. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognize that the being is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do your best to alleviate their suffering.

I have much empathy when it comes to the suffering of animals. I keenly feel the misery and terror that they feel when imprisoned, exploited or slaughtered. If I merely had sympathy, I might say something like, “I feel bad that the cow had to die for me to have a burger, but that is the circle of life,” or, “I am sorry that the pig had to die, but I need my protein.”Among other actions, I have demonstrated my compassion by protesting pet stores that sell puppies from puppy mills, where both the adult dogs and the puppies are exploited terribly and treated as commodities.  One might also volunteer at a farmed animal sanctuary or animal shelter, or write letters to legislators on behalf of suffering animals. There are countless ways to put your compassion into action.

Some animal rights groups, such as, use virtual reality (VR) headsets to immerse viewers in the life-and-death experience of animals that we choose to use for food. It is a heart-wrenching insider’s view that enhances the empathy that people feel towards animals that are used for food.  Walking in the shoes of an exploited animal and seeing what they see is a very powerful and an effective way to create empathy in the viewer. If you ever have an opportunity to see what happens to farmed animals through a VR headset, I recommend it.  Your sympathy might turn into empathy and you might reconnect with the animal-loving child within. You might then choose to take compassionate action, as I have. All it takes to be more empathetic towards animals is to allow yourself to see the unvarnished truth. 

Do you have empathy, sympathy or compassion for animals?

Susan Costello, MA, LMHC, CPCC, is a counselor and life coach who has been in practice for decades. She lives near Seattle, WA and now only works virtually. She has been vegan for 21 years. For more information, visit her website at

Compassion, Empathy and Sympathy: Careful What You Say to the Dog!

Christine Jackson, LICSW

Christine Jackson has been a therapist for fifteen years and maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. She has been an animal advocate for over four decades.

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APA Reference
Jackson, C. (2020). Compassion, Empathy and Sympathy: Careful What You Say to the Dog!. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Aug 2020
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